The 65 percent figure given for power restoration in Puerto Rico could be misleading by failing to measure how much electricity is actually reaching customers, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The estimate by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority [PREPA] that nearly two-thirds of the grid was back on line only accounted for the amount of power being generated, but Hurricane Maria destroyed PREPA’s ability to gauge how much of that power was reaching homes, Corps officials said.
“They have not been able to get their system back on line to measure customer count,” Col. John Lloyd, the Army Corps commander in charge of power restoration, said in a teleconference from Puerto Rico Wednesday.
“So we measure things in, you know, lines -- how many lines we’re getting up -- and that load measurement is, right now, the best we can do to give us an idea of how well the grid is doing,” Lloyd said.
“There is a long way to go” in restoring power and in the overall recovery mission, said Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, commander of the Corps’ South Atlantic Division.
The mission on Puerto Rico, which was dealt a glancing blow by Hurricane Irma and then took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, “has already surpassed every other post-hurricane experience in our history,” Holland said.
Holland estimated that 95 percent of the island could have power by late February or early March but “the folks at the end of the line in remote areas” might not have electricity until May.
Holland said the Corps currently has about 4,300 people working on the island -- 800 Corps employees and 3,500 contractors.
The Corps employees were all volunteers and “they come for 30, 60, or 90 days and they work seven days a week for the duration of their tour,” Holland said.
In addition to power restoration, much of the Corps’ work has been in debris removal and in providing temporary roofs known as “blue tops.”
“It’s a human problem and for us every day that goes by that they don’t get lights on, every day that goes by that we don’t have a blue roof, just motivates us to keep going because we know there’s a family that isn’t back to normal, that hasn’t had their lives restored,” she said.
“We’ve installed 23,000 thousand blue roofs out of a projected total of 75,000 required,” Holland said. “We’ve installed over 900 generators in support of hospitals, water facilities, and other critical infrastructure.”
“By comparison, we installed under 50 generators in Florida following Irma. And in fact, 900 generators is more than we installed after Hurricanes Sandy, Rita, and Katrina combined, and we expect to perhaps install another 400,” Holland said.
At the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Corps was overseeing power restoration because “the magnitude of the damage combined with the already unstable condition of the electrical grid before the storm was too much for the power utility to handle on its own,” she said.
Holland stressed that her mission was limited to emergency repairs to the grid. “Rebuilding the grid will require an additional authorization from Congress and a lot more time,” she said.
An $81 billion disaster relief bill, about double what President Donald Trump initially requested, has stalled in Congress and likely won’t be taken up until January.
The remarks of the Corps’ officials contrasted with those of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Dr. Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday.
Carson said he was surprised at the progress. "You know, interestingly enough from the reports that I had gotten, I had no idea that we had moved this far along," Carson told FEMA staff at the Joint Field Operations Center near San Juan.
“I'm extremely impressed with the progress that's been made. It's better than what I had heard previously," Carson said.
"This has been a tough [hurricane] season," Nielsen said. "We're six, seven months away from the next season, so we'll continue to work on preparedness while you continue the work you're doing here on recovery."
Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com