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 SchumerAppropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down Trump ahead of New Hampshire speech: Lewandowski would be 'fantastic' senator MORE (N.Y.) and Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility House panel investigating decision to resume federal executions To combat domestic terrorism, Congress must equip law enforcement to fight rise in white supremacist attacks 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 ZinkeNew policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press Overnight Energy: EPA proposes scrapping limits on coal plant waste | Appointee overseeing federal lands once advocated selling them | EPA lifts Obama-era block on controversial mine Latest appointee overseeing federal public lands once advocated to sell them 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.