Perry defends power restoration in Puerto Rico

Perry defends power restoration in Puerto Rico
© Camille Fine

Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Ernest Moniz Trump issues executive order to protect power grid from attack Why we need to transition, quickly, from fossil fuels to clean energy MORE on Thursday defended the federal government’s efforts to restore power in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Perry said Puerto Rico, which saw nearly all of its electricity service knocked out when the storm hit in September, presents numerous challenges that were unique and not seen in other disasters.

“Puerto Rico is very, very different from any other natural disaster that I’ve seen in my 30 years of public service. Partly because it was an island,” Perry said at an event hosted by Axios.

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“Their electrical system was bankrupt about seven, eight months before,” he said of the state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).

He conceded that electricity repair is slow in comparison to Texas and Florida, which were battered by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but chalked that up to the unique challenges in Puerto Rico.

“So, were we slow getting it back? Yes, I would suggest to you we were slow getting it back, if you use Florida and Texas as your model. Puerto Rico’s not Florida and Texas, for a lot of reasons.”

As of Thursday, 62.1 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity customers don’t have power, 43 days after Maria hit, according to PREPA.

The electrical grid recovery has been driven mostly by the Army Corps of Engineers and Whitefish Energy, which had a controversial $300 million contract with PREPA. The utility ended that contract this week and is working to bring workers from mainland utilities to help restore the grid.

The Energy Department has been helping with expertise on electricity and grid operations.

But the federal government’s role is limited, since the Stafford Act, which governs disaster recovery, only allows for government assistance to bring the area back to the state it was in before the storm, and the island’s electric grid was already in poor shape.

Bruce Walker, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for electricity, is currently in Puerto Rico helping oversee recovery operations, Perry said.

“We’ll be announcing some, I think, very positive changes to get electricity back on,” he said.