WASHINGTON — Half of Puerto Rico’s power grid will be back up Wednesday, a consequential milestone given the U.S. territory’s decrepit electricity grid, its mountainous terrain and the decimating blows delivered by back-to-back Hurricanes Irma and Maria roughly two months ago.
But it could be months before power is completely restored to the island. And no one, it seems, is interested in restoring a system that’s destined to crumble when the next powerful storm arrives.
“We all agree it makes no sense to rebuild these grids to pre-storm conditions,” Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said during a hearing Tuesday examining hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands. “Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was already antiquated so you have to ask the question as to why you would rebuild to that standard.”
Or as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., put it at the same hearing: “It is insane to rebuild it the way it was.”
At this point, officials in both territories are exploring different ways to modernize their systems.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told senators the island wants to increase dependence on renewable sources and develop a system of microgrids around the island that would transmit power independently from the main power system.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp of the Virgin Islands, where only 27% of the power grid is online, told the committee his administration wants to pursue similar steps as well as start burying power lines on the primary and secondary road systems.
The hearing exposed some of the political tensions roiling after the storm.
Puerto Rico officials defended the controversial decision not to seek initial help from mainland utilities through the “mutual aid network” and instead hire a tiny Montana firm on a $300 million contract to oversee grid reconstruction.
Ricardo Ramos, head of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told senators that Whitefish Energy Holdings was one of six companies that submitted similar bids and one of two that was immediately ready to do the work and bring their own fuel and food which island officials could not provide. Rosselló canceled the contract last month after public furor erupted.
Whitefish is located in Whitefish, Mont., the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The company is backed by a private equity firm, HBC Investments, which is headed by Joe Colonnetta, a major donor to President Trump's election campaign, the Trump Victory PAC and other Republican candidates.
Representatives of the U.S. territories, meanwhile, said they are grateful for the billions in federal assistance but still feel neglected.
“On the island of St. John, our residents only started seeing power for the first-time last week,” Mapp told the committee. “Can you imagine a community here on the mainland going without power for six weeks?”
Rosselló said his island is slowly starting to come back: water systems are now 90 percent online, telecommunication systems are 75% restored, approximately 1,507 miles of its 5,073 miles of roads are open, almost all supermarkets and gas stations are operating, and 58 of 60 hospitals have re-opened their doors.
“We’re resilient,” he told the committee. “And we’re making progress.”