The US Army Corps of Engineers (Usace) gave a verbal promise to restore the power grid in 45 days was verbal and was not reflected in the document in which the government entrusted the repair to the Usace.
Hector Pesquera, Secretary of Public Safety, who was at the meeting when they signed the document, said that the estimate for the repairs to be finished came from Usace Lieutenant General, Todd Semonite. At that time, there was talk of the being financed with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with an investment of $ 87 million.
"If you put it in perspective, with the government broken, 10 days after the hurricane (September 30) and with the help of the people who built the Panama Canal (in reference to Usace), there were no doubts, at that time, that it was something possible," Pesquera said in an interview with El Nuevo Día.
"They said they had overflown the system and knew the scope of the damage," the secretary added, showing a photo of the document Semonite gave the governor to sign, completing the formal part of the beginning of the mission.
It was a form that, among other things, mentioned in general terms the mission of restoring the power grid, the priority given to works and specified the period of emergency which would end at the end of this month, after six months of the passage of Maria.
Neither the form signed by Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares nor the one that was subsequently endorsed by another local government official to correct some formalities of the process mention that repairs would be made in 45 days.
"The 45 days were verbal," assured Pesquera.
Fourteen days after that meeting, Rosselló Nevares publicly promised at a press conference that the electrical system would be restored by 95 percent by mid-December 2017. However, after the governor's announcement, Usace said that this goal was not possible due to the scope of the damage caused by Hurricane Maria.
Usace Colonel Jason A. Kirk has denied that they estimated repairs would last 45 days. He stressed that since October 2017, Usace has estimated that the total energization would take until May or June this year.
The alleged promise to repair the Island's power grid in 45 days is the latest chapter in the blame game for the delays in the repair of electricity transmission and distribution lines.
Currently, around 168,000 customers of PREPA remain without electricity, some since failures related to Hurricane Irma, two weeks before Maria.
At the beginning of October, Rosselló Nevares and several of his administration officials began to blame Usace for the delays in the repair of the grid. By then, the complaint was because the brigades they had hired were not devoted to the repair of the system and there were not enough materials.
"We are very grateful for their help. Despite that description made to us (of the 45 days), we are very grateful ... It was not that someone from here or from Jacksonville told us that it would be within that period, it was the one in charge who said it. If they had told us that (the delay) was because they were facing problems, then we would have understood that, but that was not what happened," said the secretary of Public Safety.
The Whitefish effect
By then, Rosselló’s administration was dealing with the controversy related to the contract with the Montana-based company Whitefish Energy, for the repair of the power grid. At the moment Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico had only two employees.
PREPA, then led by engineer Ricardo Ramos, chose to grant Whitefish Energy a contract, instead of activating the mutual cooperation agreement that members of the American Public Power Association (APPA) have, an entity to which PREPA belongs.
The controversy for the hiring of Whitefish Energy caused a series of pressures from the US capital that were translated in bureaucratic complications in the Island´s recovery process.
He said, for example, that before the controversy, FEMA made disbursements and that the state government later justified the use of the money. In contrast, now the money is disbursed by FEMA, after the central government justifies it and the bills go through an almost audit process.
This has affected the government's cash flow and has limited the agility with of the works to be carried out.
In fact, he noted that police overtime in October due to the emergency has not been reimbursed by FEMA, then to pay the officers they had to use money from the central government, which is really short.
"Here the rules of the game changed once the issue of Whitefish came up. That is where political pressures began and everything changed. Now everything is slower," said Pesquera.
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