SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Officials in the U.S. and Puerto Rico are clashing over when power will be fully restored to the U.S. territory after Hurricane Maria hit as a Category 4 storm more than a month ago.
State-owned power company director Ricardo Ramos said the utility has restored 37 percent of the electrical system’s regular output, and is expected to restore 50 percent by mid-November and 95 percent by mid-December. But Ray Alexander, director of contingency operations at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the Corps goal is to have 50 percent restored by the end of November and 75 percent by the end of January.
“We are focused on executing the mission we’ve been assigned,” Alexander said during a hearing on Thursday in Washington, D.C., adding that the agency has been working with the U.S. Department of Energy to help develop a more resilient electrical grid.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello criticized the Corps earlier this week for what he said was a lack of urgency in responding to Puerto Rico’s blackout.
The majority of the island still has no electricity, and complaints are widespread among business owners who say losses are mounting and parents who say their children need to start school. Nearly 20 percent of the island has also had no water since Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20 with winds of up to 154 mph, killing at least 54 people. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs and some say more than 470,000 people could leave the island in upcoming years.
“If we don’t re-establish power and other basic services, the damage to our economy will be even greater,” said Puerto Rico Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario. “We cannot allow that, and we have established clear goals.”
The difference in estimates comes two days after the state-owned utility canceled a heavily scrutinized $300 million contract awarded to Whitefish Energy Holdings. The Montana-based company is located in the hometown of U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and had only two-full time employees before Hurricane Maria hit. Crews subcontracted by Whitefish will finish their projects before Nov. 30, officials said.
Ramos continued to praise Whitefish despite local and federal audits of the contract. “They’ve performed very well,” he said.
Ramos said he is recommending that Oklahoma-based Cobra Acquisitions, which has a $200 million contract with the government, subcontract the workers Whitefish had employed if the contract allows for it. Ramos also said Cobra’s contract is “practically” the same as the one awarded to Whitefish.
He said that the power company sent letters requesting help and received responses from the American Public Power Association and Edison Electric Institute, adding that brigades from New York’s Power Authority could arrive in upcoming weeks.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it also expects about 2,100 workers to arrive by mid-November to help restore power.