Committee on Energy and N. Resources: Hearing on Hurricane Recovery Efforts

Hearing on Hurricane Recovery Efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

On November 14th, the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources held a full committee oversight hearing on "Hearing on Hurricane Recovery Efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands". This meeting was intended to address the gamut of issues regarding Puerto Rico’s and the US Virgin Islands’ current state and recovery after Hurricane Maria, as well as the logistical and political challenges that have followed in suite.

Overseeing the hearing was committee chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell. Sen. Murkowski’s opening remarks broke down the issue with a bleak reality check: “These storms brought 185 mph winds that ripped leaves from the trees… power lines were strewn across our roads; utility poles snapped in half like matchsticks; and 400 boats were sunk in our harbors. Nine (9) schools, our two main hospitals and related healthcare facilities, fire stations and police stations were so badly damaged that they had to be condemned. Our airports and many of our government offices are also unusable and that has drastically impacted the delivery of vital government services. More than 15,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and virtually all of our power distribution infrastructure was wiped out… We have estimated that the economic losses to our key industries, including tourism, stand at more than $1.7 billion over the next three years. Damages to commercial facilities stand at nearly $900 million [and] uninsured hurricane-related damages to exceed $7.5 billion.”

Sen. Cantwell then embellish on points made by the Chairwoman, while providing criticism towards the recovery efforts and emphasized the issue of the Whitefish scandal:

THis administration, which has been responsible for restoring the electricity grid along with local partners, needs to do more for the people of Puerto Rico. [Bruce] Walker… I supported your nomination, and I’m sure you’re the right man to help, but you need to hear this loud and clear—we need to do more”…”According to a New York Times report, electrical workers were paid $42/hr, linemen $63/hr, and yet Whitefish billed the government utility $319/hr”…”The people of Puerto Rico remain a number one priority, but I will not stop making sure that the U.S. taxpayer is not gouged in this process. Let’s be very clear about that.” Recovering at cost was a major focal point of this brief, outlining companies/contractors that take advantage of such disasters for financial gain as something that will not be allowed through this and future recovery processes.

Opening remarks were then followed by a series of Witness Panels, including Witness Panel 1: [Governor Kenneth Mapp, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy Bruce Walker, Major General Donald E. Jackson Jr], and Witness Panel 2: [Ricardo Ramos, Julio Rhymer Sr., José H. Román Morales PE, and Ms. Natalie Jaresko].

Governor Nevares delivered a testimony that not only spoke to the hardships of the people of Puerto Rico, but their frustrations as well. “Puerto Rico has been treated equally in times of war, sacrificing like any other state, now in our time of greatest need we call on Congress to treat us equally as we work to recover, and ultimately rebuild a new and stronger Puerto Rico. We have the will and the spirit needed to continue contributing as part of the great American family.” Throughout his testimony and later response to the committee’s questioning, Governor Nevares repeatedly asked for equality, claiming if such a history-making event happened to other states, they would not have the same issues Puerto Rico has endured.

Governor Mapp outlined similar struggles in the Virgin Islands, stating they take responsibility for rebuilding and rebuilding better, but it is not something they can do alone. A quick rebuild will only “compound the suffering the people of the US Virgin Islands have already endured” and the recovery efforts need to focus on stronger infrastructure and resilience.

Major General Jackson, of the USACE, outlined the efforts the Corps is taking part in for such an unusually active hurricane season. “Hurricane Harvey –On August 25, 2017, Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the central Texas coast. Large amounts of rainfall fell across the greater Houston metropolitan area causing record flooding. FEMA has identified $93.7 million in Mission Assignments for the Corps to assist in Hurricane Harvey response and recovery. Currently, the Corps has over 200 Corps employees deployed at key response nodes. Hurricanes Irma and Maria – Category 5 Hurricane Irma made landfall over the U.S. Virgin Islands on September 6, 2017, while also impacting Puerto Rico with Category 2 winds, 12 foot storm surge and up to 20 inches of rain. Hurricane Irma made landfall in southern Florida/Florida Keys on September 9, 2017. Soon thereafter, Category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall over Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, causing major damage to critical infrastructure and homes. FEMA has identified $1.7 billion in Mission Assignments for the Corps to assist in Hurricanes Irma and Maria response and recovery (45 Mission Assignments totaling $176.3 million for Hurricane Irma and 34 Mission Assignments totaling $1.5 billion for Hurricane Maria). Currently, the Corps has over 1,500 personnel deployed in various locations supporting the recovery missions.”

Mr. Bruce Walker, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (U.S. Department of Energy), also outlined detailed recovery efforts in a similar emphasis that showed the Department is using all of it’s resources in the recovery effort.

However, these two men met a fair share of criticism during the hearing, particularly due to the current state of Puerto Rico and it’s utilities. Senator Bernie Sanders stated “We should be doing better. We’re the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth and two months after this hurricane, 50% of the people on Puerto Rico don’t have access to clean water or electricity and 80% of the people in the Virgin Islands -- Mr. Jackson and Mr. Walker, do you think we could be doing better?”

Furtherly, the topic of why mutual aid generated a fair amount of frustration from all panels. Mutual aid is what helps share resources during a time of emergency without worrying about jurisdictional limits and bureaucratic issues. Mutual aid for Puerto Rico was triggered at a time identified by the panel as “not early enough”.

Mrs. Natalie Jaresko was one of the final witness to speak; re-emphasizing points about the economic recovery made in last week’s hearing, and brought the attention of private investment and it’s need by the islands to secure recovery effort funds.

The meeting concluded after a run time of 3 hours and 6 minutes, with steps moving forward for the witnesses to answer remaining questions off line and or the committee to move forward with potential budgetary/ legislative action.

 

 

 

Personnel Glossary

Sen. Lisa Murkowski

  • Chairman
  • Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Sen. Maria Cantwell

  • Ranking Member
  • Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

The Honorable Kenneth Mapp

  • Governor
  • United States Virgin Islands

The Honorable Ricardo Rosselló Nevares

  • Governor
  • Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

The Honorable Bruce Walker

  • Assistant Secretary
  • Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, U.S. Department of Energy

Major General Donald E. Jackson Jr.

  • Deputy Commanding General
  • Civil and Emergency Operations, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Mr. Ricardo Ramos

  • Executive Director
  • Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority

Mr. Julio Rhymer Sr.

  • Executive Director, Chief Executive Officer
  • Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority

Mr. José H. Román Morales PE

  • Acting Chairman
  • Puerto Rico Energy Commission

Ms. Natalie Jaresko

  • Executive Director
  • Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico
Amanda Pope