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Why restoring Puerto Rico’s power is so difficult

Both federal and local authorities have faced criticism for the speed of Puerto Rico recovery efforts. A month after Hurricane Maria, some 80 percent of the island remains without electricity. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with José Sánchez, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to discuss the problems with the devastated power grid.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We turn now to the rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico.

    Both the local and federal governments have faced criticism for their actions after Hurricane Maria. It slammed into the island on September 20, killing at least 48.

    Today, the president met with the Puerto Rico’s governor at the White House. Mr. Trump was asked how he’d grade his administration’s response to the crisis on a scale of one to 10.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I would say it was a 10. I would say it was probably the most difficult, when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved.

    It hit right through the middle of the island, right through the middle of Puerto Rico. There’s never been anything like that. I give ourselves a 10.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For his part, the governor, Ricardo Rossello, sidestepped the question about what grade he would give the federal response, but he did thank the president and lawmakers.

  • Gov. Ricardo Rosselló:

    What’s going to keep the people there, what is going to keep this going is knowing that we have the backing of the White House, and knowing that we’re going to have the backing of Congress, so that we can have the resources appropriate to attend to the storm, and then be smart about it, be innovative, and restore Puerto Rico to a better position than before.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Some 80 percent of Puerto Rico remains without electricity, and President Trump addressed the task of repairing the its devastated power grid.

  • President Donald Trump:

    There’s never been a case where power plants were gone. So this isn’t just like — you know, as I said, I don’t want to just fix poles. You can’t just fix the poles. There’s never been a case where power plants were gone. So it’s going to be a period of time before the electric is restored.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on the efforts to repair the island’s power grid, I spoke a short time ago with Jose Sanchez. He’s the director of the Puerto Rico Power Restoration Task Force for the Army Corps of Engineers. He joined me from San Juan via Skype.

    I began by asking about the president’s assessment that the power plants were the significant problem, not the transmission lines.

  • José Sánchez:

    Well, it’s all tied together. Right?

    So, if you don’t have the transmission lines up, the generation of power the cannot be put in place. In other words, you can’t just fire up a generator, hoping for a line to be connected afterwards. It’s a demand signal. So you have got to have the demand that comes from the homes and the businesses through the transmissions line back into the generator itself.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So give us an idea of the scale of repairs that are necessary.

  • José Sánchez:

    So, when we got here, the first assistance we got from the local power authority was that they had about — 80 percent of the system was affected, not necessarily destroyed, but affected, and that would be from lines down to trees touching the lines and so on and so forth.

    Obviously, some of the systems have already been fixed. There are crews out there right now. And about — last we heard, about 20 percent of the generation power or beyond has been now energized.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We’re a month out and we’re still talking about 20 percent. This is an area the size of Connecticut. This would be much faster if it was back on the mainland.

    Give us an idea why this is so challenging.

  • José Sánchez:

     There are several factors to this.

    Definitely, the topography in Puerto Rico is very challenging. We’re talking about a single central ridge that goes up several thousand feet and comes back down. There is also the issue with the wind speeds.

    The amount of devastation that we have seen here of towers and lines is really at least unprecedented in my 22 years as an engineer. And the combination of logistics, being on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, presents another factor to add to this.

    Plus, there’s also manufacturing constraints here. We have Irma, Maria and Jose that impacted portions of the United States that were actually the closest in proximity to Puerto Rico.

    And, you know, in order to get materials for those sectors in Florida, Texas and Georgia, have also depleted some of the supplies to the manufacturers. So we’re competing against all this, and not only that, the Virgin Islands, which was also devastated heavily, and their electrical system has also been impacted beyond repair.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mr. Sanchez was joining us via Skype. And even in the middle of our conversation, the power went out.

  • José Sánchez:

    We just had a problem with power here, as we speak about power.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. I think we’re set here.

    So, how much is this all going to cost, and is there enough money to fix it?

  • José Sánchez:

    The real question in terms of how much it’s going to cost, the — it’s something that is going at the same time as we’re repairing, because we don’t have time to plan and design.

    We’re going at it as fast as we can. So, as we do repairs, we’re seeing what the burn rates of the materials is. At the same time, we’re also seeing the speed that we can fix this.

    So I think, as we go into about a third of the way of the repairs, we will probably have a better idea of what the overall cost is going to be.

    We already are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We awarded a $240 million contract already. Plus, we — just night, we awarded a $40 million contract on that. We already put an order for $148 million of materials. So, we are already in the $400 million to $500 million range.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:


    Finally, is the Army Corps’s charge to try to rebuild the infrastructure as it was, or can you improve it? There’s a lot of people that are asking whether, for example, renewables can be a greater part of the mix.

    The island was almost exclusively powered by oil and diesel oil that they have to truck in. But you’re literally on an island. You have got tidal power surrounding you. You have sunshine almost eight hours a day all year around. You have got offshore wind.

  • José Sánchez:

    Yes, I would say the — by the way, we are on the mission assignment by FEMA.

    And the mission assignment is about emergency repairs. So, this is a situation where we’re just fixing things around the island.

    Now, of course, as we fix, we’re not going to put a post that is without the current standards. So, we’re improving the system just by the matter of fact that we’re replacing things that are of older age with newer things.

    And that’s how the system — in a way, even though we are under assignment just — basically to just repair the system, there’s going to be some improvements due to the fact that we’re doing that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jose Sanchez from the Army Corps of Engineers, thanks so much for joining us.

  • José Sánchez:

    Thank you for having me. My pleasure.

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