Disaster Response

House hearing examines hurricane recovery efforts

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy on Nov. 2 held a hearing that examined the energy infrastructure response and recovery efforts in response to the wave of hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida and the Southeastern part of the U.S. mainland, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

At the start of the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the subcommittee was holding the hearing to find out “what went right and what went wrong” during the recovery efforts after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. He said he wanted “the lessons learned.”

Upton expressed concerns that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) were still without power and noted the human crisis on the islands. He criticized the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, for not calling for mutual aid in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria and noted the full committee is investigating PREPA’s contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings.

(PREPA recently cancelled a $300 million contract that the utility had entered into with Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings).

Meanwhile, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., the subcommittee’s ranking member, voiced strong concerns about the lack of power in USVI and Puerto Rico more than a month after the storms. He discussed the need to rebuild the electric infrastructure in Puerto Rico so that it is more resilient and better able to withstand future storms.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, stated that the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and USVI is still ongoing. He expressed strong concerns that U.S. citizens lacked access to essentials, such as clean water, due to the lack of power, particularly in the more remote parts of Puerto Rico. He said he wants to be sure the agencies under the committee’s jurisdiction are doing what they should be to help in the recovery efforts and to find out if they need additional powers to carry out their mission and reiterated Upton’s desire to find out the “lessons learned.”

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and full committee ranking member, said that PREPA did not respond to the committee’s invitation to testify at the hearing. He asked, “who is in charge of restoring power [in Puerto Rico]?”

He said he was concerned by the contracts PREPA entered into with contractors, particularly the Whitefish contract, as well as the response to the disaster by the federal government. He expressed his belief that the grid in Puerto Rico needs to be built to be more resilient; otherwise, he said, in the long run, it will cost the federal government more money in the long run when Puerto Rico is hit again by a hurricane.

DOE, USACE officials testify

Included among the federal government officials who testified were Patricia Hoffman, Acting Under Secretary for Science and Energy, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, and Ray Alexander, Director of Contingency Operations, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE.

For her part, Hoffman detailed the DOE’s role in emergency response and the mission of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Reliability.

She provided the subcommittee with statistics on outages during each hurricane and discussed how mutual aid was responsible for the quick recovery after Hurricane Irma.

Hoffman also provided statistics on the number of DOE personnel in USVI and Puerto Rico and discussed how the Western Area Power Administration is providing mutual assistance in USVI.

In Puerto Rico, USACE is in charge of the restoration of electrical infrastructure, as a lead under Emergency Support Function #3 – Engineering and Public Works. She said that USACE is working in close coordination with DOE.

In his remarks, USACE’s Alexander detailed how USACE conducts its emergency response activities and discussed what USACE did in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

During Q&A with the first panel of government witnesses, Upton said that that PREPA did not respond to emails and phone calls from the committee and then asked Alexander how USACE’s oversight of PREPA has gone.

Alexander responded that oversight of USACE’s mission was going well and cited the contracts entered into with Fluor and Power Secure.

Upton also asked him if USACE knew of contracts with Whitefish and another firm called Cobra Acquisitions ahead of PREPA signing them. Alexander responded that the Corps did not know of the contracts ahead of time. Rush asked Alexander if he trusted PREPA and in response, Alexander said he had no reason not to.

USVI’s Julio Rhymer also testified

Meanwhile, Julio Rhymer, executive director and CEO of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, testified about the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on USVI.

He discussed how the restoration efforts were going and the assistance USVI is receiving through mutual aid and the Western Area Power Administration.

He also made a plea for funding for the day-to-day operations of USVI WAPA and for future hardening of the electric system.

Rhymer thanked Congress and President Trump for the disaster relief measure that gives $36.5 billion to USVI and Puerto Rico.

He also noted USVI WAPA is seeking a Community Disaster Loan and wrapped up his testimony by discussing how USVI WAPA will rebuild its transmission and distribution systems to be more resilient.

Association sent letter prior to hearing

Prior the hearing, Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, on Nov. 1 sent a letter to Upton and Rush, in which she expressed the Association’s appreciation for the subcommittee’s holding the hearing.

In her letter, Kelly noted that the Association, along with the Edison Electric Institute and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, participates in the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, a public/private partnership outlined in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan for critical infrastructure owners and operators.

Kelly noted that Tom Fanning, chairman, president and CEO of Southern Company, is a co-chair of the ESCC, that he would testify before the subcommittee on behalf of the ESCC and that the Association supported his testimony.

In the letter, she also wrote that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria “caused widespread damage and impacted millions of Americans throughout the South and in the Caribbean,” noting that public power utilities and their customers were impacted by all three storms, but particularly by Irma and Maria.

Irma caused widespread damage to the islands of St. Thomas and St. John in the USVI and Key West, Florida.  All 63 counties of Florida and large parts of Georgia, as well as Puerto Rico, were also impacted the storm.  Irma was soon followed by Hurricane Maria, which caused significant damage to St. Croix in USVI and Puerto Rico, she pointed out.

“Mutual aid played an important role in helping restore power to many impacted communities and is ongoing in the efforts to restore power to USVI,” Kelly said.

“In the aftermath of these devastating storms, APPA has received a lot of questions about mutual aid,” she wrote to the lawmakers.  “Common questions include what is it?  How does it work?  How is it invoked?  Who pays for it?”

Given the many questions the Association has received, “we thought it would be helpful to provide an overview on the mutual aid process.” She then offered a detailed explanation of the mutual aid process and how it has come into play with the recent hurricanes.

Association responds to PREPA request for power restoration assistance

In related news, the Association and EEI on Oct. 31 received a letter from Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority CEO Ricardo Ramos seeking assistance in bringing resources to Puerto Rico to support power restoration on the island.

In response, Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the Association, and Tom Kuhn, president of EEI, sent a letter to Ramos on Oct. 31 saying that the utility groups “look forward to working with you and with our government partners and their contractors to bring crews, equipment, material, and technical experts to the island to restore power for the people of Puerto Rico.”

Hearing scheduled for Nov. 7

On Nov. 7, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing, "Examining Challenges in Puerto Rico's Recovery and the Role of the Financial Oversight and Management Board."

The first panel will be Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico and Noel Zamot, revitalization coordinator for the Financial Oversight and Management Board.

On Oct. 25, the Puerto Rico Oversight Board said it would appoint Zamot to oversee the rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s grid and operations of PREPA. The oversight board was set up in 2016 through the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA.

The second panel at the hearing on Nov. 7 will include Ricardo Ramos, executive director of PREPA,
Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Angel Pérez Otero, the mayor of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.