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 SchumerSchumer wants investigation into Chinese-designed New York subway cars Getting serious about infrastructure Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act MORE (N.Y.) and Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinIraq War looms over Trump battle with Iran Muslim lawmakers host Ramadan iftar to break fast at Capitol Let's stop treating student borrowers like second-class citizens 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 ZinkeSenate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Interior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? 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.