Senate Dems demand quicker FEMA response in Puerto Rico

Senate Dems demand quicker FEMA response in Puerto Rico
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Nearly three dozen Democratic senators are calling on the Trump administration to step up and better coordinate its efforts to restore electrical power and water in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria.

In a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Army Corps of Engineers, 35 Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation MORE (N.Y.) and Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGrassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (Ill.), voiced concern that the government lacks a "clear chain of command" in its efforts to restore power in Puerto Rico.

"We are particularly concerned with the lack of a unified command for electrical grid restoration to ensure that resources are properly and quickly utilized, that specific tasks are appropriately prioritized, and that efforts are not duplicative," the senators wrote. 

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"Therefore, we urge both of your agencies, in conjunction with [Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority], to establish a clear chain of command and identify a responsible official to oversee all contracts and coordinate with local officials so that work will be as efficient and effective as possible."

A month after Maria barreled across Puerto Rico, most of the island remains without power. As of Friday afternoon, only about 27 percent of residents had electricity, according to a website maintained by the Puerto Rican government.

The letter from the senators comes amid mounting concerns over the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority's (PREPA) decision to award a $300 million contract to small Montana-based energy firm called Whitefish Energy.

At the time the hurricane struck Puerto Rico last month, Whitefish, which is located in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeMontana lawmakers cheer recommendation to ban mining north of Yellowstone Overnight Energy: Navajo coal plant to close | NC dam breach raises pollution fears | House panel to examine endangered species bills Navajo-owned coal plant to be shut down despite Interior push to keep open MORE, had only two full-time employees. The firm has said that its experience working in mountainous areas qualifies it to take on the work to restore Puerto Rico's electrical grid.

FEMA said in a statement on Friday that it had concerns about PREPA's contract with Whitefish and how the deal was made. It also sought to distance itself from the decision to hire the Montana firm.

"The decision to award a contract to Whitefish Energy was made exclusively by PREPA. FEMA was not involved in the selection," the agency said. "Questions regarding the awarding of the contract should be directed to PREPA."

The White House sought similar distance on Friday.

The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and two congressional committees are also reviewing the awarding of the contract to Whitefish.