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FEMA announces plan to extend emergency power restoration mission in Puerto Rico

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
Whitefish Energy Holdings workers restore power lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Oct. 27 that it had no involvement in the decision to award a $300 million contract to help restore Puerto Rico’s power grid to a tiny Montana company in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown, Oct. 15, 2017. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)

WASHINGTON — On Thursday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced it will provide additional disaster assistance for Puerto Rico as the island continues to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Maria last September. Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress had requested additional aid to fully restore power on the island before the next hurricane season starts on June 1.

FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Mike Byrne announced the additional assistance, which will include an extension of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mission assignment for emergency power restoration, which had been scheduled to end Friday. This extension will allow  leasing and maintaining three major generators until they can be purchased by the local Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and service for more than 700 generators in use on the island.

Nearly all of the over 1.5 million residents of Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory, lost power after hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island two weeks apart last September. Over three-quarters of the island still lacked power one month after the storms, which led to widespread criticism of the U.S. government’s response. Experts have said the blackout was the largest in U.S. history.

As of Thursday, power had been restored to over 90 percent of Puerto Rico. Despite the progress, some concerns remain. Last month, an accident with construction equipment caused an islandwide blackout just days after another failure that cut power to more than half the population. Those incidents renewed fears about the fragile power grid, although the local power authority has said it hopes to have power fully restored by the end of this month.

On May 9, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, wrote a letter asking FEMA to extend its mission to allow agency crews and contractors to remain on the island for up to 90 days.González-Colón cited the recent power failures as evidence Puerto Rico’s power grid is currently “unstable” and “unreliable.” She also expressed doubts about the local power authority’s ability to get electricity fully restored before June 1. González-Colón said the power authority “does not have the resources” to fix all the remaining problems, and the impending end of the FEMA mission was “alarming to the citizens.”

“So, we find the system still not at the needed level of resiliency, and lack of power to tens of thousands of homes, with only three weeks to go to the official start of the hurricane season,” she wrote.

FEMA’s extension of the mission does not include power-line repairs that González-Colón had requested. FEMA said this decision came at the request of the local power authority, which will oversee the remaining work. The additional aid being provided represents everything that was requested by the island’s government on April 29. The agency provided Yahoo News with a letter Byrne wrote to a representative of the island’s government on Thursday, where he outlined the extended mission and said federal and local authorities would need to cooperate further on planning for the upcoming hurricane season.

“Investing our time in this engagement now will result in enabling us to act quickly and decisively should a major event impacting the still-fragile power grid occur, and ensure Puerto Rico builds back more resiliently,” Byrne wrote.

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