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Army Corps of Engineers will leave Puerto Rico as thousands lack electricity

In Puerto Rico, 22,000 people still have no electricity in advance of hurricane season, which begins June 1. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was brought in to restore power after Hurricane Maria, is preparing to leave the island as its electric grid remains unreliable. Jessica Resnick-Ault of Reuters joins Alison Stewart for more.

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  • ALISON STEWART:

    With thousands of people in Puerto Rico still without electricity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is leaving the island. It’s been eight months since Hurricane Maria wiped out homes and took down much of Puerto Rico’s power grid. FEMA will leave generators in place but with hurricane season about to begin again, residents are not confident that their local power company, which is bankrupt will be able to restore power in the event of another storm. Joining us now is Reuters reporter Jessica Resnick-Ault who is covering this story. Jessica, why is the Army Corps of Engineers leaving?

  • JESSICA RESNICK-AULT:

    So the Army Corps mission was assigned by FEMA and it ended effective Friday. Right now, they’re in the middle of what they’ve called an orderly transition to help the local power company called PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, takeover. The job of finishing the restoration and then hardening the system preparing it so that it’s more resilient in the future.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Jessica, how long were the Army Corps of Engineers on the ground and what did they do during that time?

  • JESSICA RESNICK-AULT:

    So the Army Corps was brought in about a week after the storm hit. First of all, they had to secure materials prep because it was bankrupt and because of some of the administrative difficulties they had had as an entity did not have a lot of backup materials on hand. So, the Army Corps had to do a number of subcontracts to get the right kind of equipment and materials on the island. That was the first thing. Then, once that equipment was there, they’ve been helping with going around the island physically lifting poles, lifting lines and installing these generators, small generators that serve as backups to bring schools and police stations and other critical infrastructure online. And, they’ve also been helping with larger generators that provide supplemental power to the power plants on the island.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    How much of the island has power? How much does and how much is that in-between state right now?

  • JESSICA RESNICK-AULT:

    Over 98 percent of the island’s power customers have power. So that means that about 22,000 customers or households and businesses are still without power. The in-between state is a little tricky. So I talked to some people who had solar panel systems that are temporary — they give them power during the day but then they’re unable to run their refrigerators overnight. I spoke with people who have loans for power systems like solar panels but don’t have them yet. So there are a lot of people who are sort of gradually getting energized and it’s unclear where they fall in the calculations even for people whose power has been restored.

    There have been interruptions. So, last month there was an island wide blackout that occurred when a high voltage line was hit by an excavator that was doing some work near by. I think there’s a lot of concern that the island remains vulnerable to this season’s hurricanes.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Were there enough changes made in the infrastructure, which are long lasting changes? Or was it a patchwork kind of situation where the island can withstand another storm if another one comes?

  • JESSICA RESNICK-AULT:

    Hurricane season is expected to be worse than usual. It’s not expected to be quite as bad as last year but it’s a pretty serious storm season that the Caribbean is bracing for. And right now, I think, the hope that PREPA has is that they’ll have improved some of their logistical responses. They’re doing drills and storm response drills internally but the reality is that at this point there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. The north side of the island, which is the more populous part with cities like San Juan still is receiving its power from the south side via lines that have to cross mountains. So, until those lines are buried or until there are redundant systems in the north, those cities are going to be very vulnerable to any major storm that sweeps through the mountains.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Jessica Resnick-Ault from Reuters. Thanks for sharing your reporting.

  • JESSICA RESNICK-AULT:

    Thanks for having me.

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