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Puerto Rico Cancels Whitefish Contract, Seeks Aid From Two States

Whitefish Energy workers restore power lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico. (Ramon Espinosa / AP)

Puerto Rico’s state-owned utilities company announced Sunday that it has canceled its contract with Whitefish Energy, the small company that had been contracted—despite much criticism—to rebuild the island’s power grid in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The company, based in Whitefish, Mont., Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown, had only two full-time employees before the hurricane.

With Whitefish out of the picture, Puerto Rico will request mutual aid agreements with the two U.S. states, according to Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. The Washington Post reports:

Thirty-nine days after Hurricane Maria hit the territory, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said that he is requesting assistance from Florida and New York under “mutual aid” arrangements that utilities traditionally activate during emergencies. The territory had not previously done so and had not responded to offers of assistance.

About 80 percent of people on the commonwealth’s main island still have no electricity.

“I have given instructions to immediately proceed with the necessary coordination with the states of Florida and New York, in order for brigades and equipment to arrive on the island. At the moment, PREPA [Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] and its contractors have 404 brigades working on the island, while the [United States Army Corps of Engineers] has seven,” Rosselló said, adding in a later statement that his administration aims to have “over 1,000 brigades in Puerto Rico by November 8.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has criticized the Trump administration’s response to the disaster, and has traveled to Puerto Rico twice, bringing crew members from the New York Power Authority to help assess damage to the island’s electrical systems.

“To be here five weeks later and people still don’t have power, people still don’t have water, the results speak for themselves,” Cuomo said. “It’s unacceptable. It’s inadequate. It’s a life-and-death situation.”

CNBC notes that cancellation of the Whitefish contract could set back recovery efforts an additional 10 to 12 weeks. Several members of Congress called for an investigation into how the contract came to exist.

The Washington Post continues:

The House committee is planning a hearing on the Whitefish contract. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is hold a hearing on hurricane response Tuesday. …

While the conditions in Puerto Rico are difficult and the work is dangerous, there are companies and agencies seeking to do the work for substantially less, according to people familiar with figures from four companies from the mainland.

After conducting a preliminary review, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Friday that it “has significant concerns with how PREPA procured this contract and has not confirmed whether the contract prices are reasonable.” The agency said it is working with PREPA to “obtain information about the contract and contracting process.”

PREPA CEO Richard Ramos told AP News that he had not discussed the cancellation with Whitefish and that “a lawsuit could be forthcoming.”

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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