Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Workers arrive in Virgin Islands; communications still down in Puerto Rico

Mutual aid workers from the Western Area Power Administration have arrived on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and are working with crews from the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority to energize the transmission system there, said Mike Hyland, the American Public Power Association’s senior vice president of engineering, on a conference call with mutual aid leaders on Monday afternoon, Sept. 25. More mutual aid crews and equipment are expected to arrive in the Virgin Islands on Wednesday, he said.

In Puerto Rico, where communications systems are still down after Hurricane Maria ripped across the island on Sept. 20, “it has been a struggle understanding exactly what’s going on,” Hyland said, speaking from inside the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Response Coordination Center in Washington, D.C. The NRCC coordinates federal support for major emergencies.

The transmission system in Puerto Rico has reportedly been flattened, and the distribution system has been described by emergency workers as 90 percent to 100 percent destroyed, he said. And because of communications and other difficulties, there has been no formal request for help from Puerto Rico to the Federal Emergency Management Agency yet, said Hyland.

Fuel is a big concern, because with the power out all over the island, the only electricity is coming from generators, and the generators are running out of fuel, Hyland said.

Right now, Hyland said, it is difficult to pin down exactly what the needs are in Puerto Rico, and it also is difficult to make sure that any mutual aid workers can be sure of the basic things they will need: transportation, housing, food, and security.

“The word of the day is going to be patience,” said Hyland. “We’re going to have to be patient.”

Reuters reported on Monday that Hurricane Maria has turned Puerto Rico “into a disaster zone with virtually no power that many are now desperate to escape.” Hundreds of stranded travelers filled Puerto Rico’s main airport in San Juan, “struggling to get through to loved ones and airlines alike,” the news service said. A dam on the island, weakened by heavy rains, posed a flood threat to thousands of homes downstream.

Over the weekend, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said that a crack in the Guajataca Dam in the northwestern part of the island “has become a significant rupture,” and urged residents to evacuate.

The National Weather Service on Monday continued a flood warning for western Puerto Rico.

Many structures on the island — including hospitals — are badly damaged, and are flooded.

New York sends team, drones

On Friday, Sept. 22, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo escorted an emergency team to Puerto Rico to assess damage to the electric system on the island after the flooding and wreckage caused by the worst hurricane to hit the U.S. territory in close to a century.

Taking part on the trip to the stricken island was a team from the New York Power Authority that included transmission supervisors, generation and transmission engineers, and transmission planners, as well as drones and two drone pilots from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico at 6:15 a.m. on, Sept. 20, it was a Category 4 storm — the next to highest level on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale — but it was not far below the highest designation, Category 5. It had winds of 155 miles per hour. A storm becomes a Category 5 once it has sustained winds of 157 mph or more.

First Irma, then Maria

Before Maria arrived for its devastating strike on Puerto Rico, the island already had been hit by a powerful storm: Hurricane Irma. Irma struck a glancing blow to the island on Sept. 6. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported that nearly 70 percent of its customers had no electricity after Irma. PREPA had whittled that down to about 4 percent when Maria hit the island last week with the full force of a Category 4 hurricane.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long has said that it could take up to six months to restore power to all of Puerto Rico.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hurricane Irma had knocked out electric service to most of St. Thomas and virtually all of St. John, but largely spared St. Croix. But Maria had the extreme force of a Category 5 storm when it hit St. Croix squarely — so now, the electric infrastructure of all three islands is in very poor shape. There have been reports that conditions in the Virgin Islands are very bad, with no electricity, no water, food shortages, and lawlessness.

FEMA is coordinating all rescue and recovery operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The agency is prioritizing life saving and sustaining efforts. It is providing generators and fuel for temporary power restoration at critical facilities such as hospitals.


10,000 on the ground; challenging logistics

According to a FEMA intergovernmental advisory, “There are more than 10,000 federal staff on the ground in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands supporting response and recovery operations from Hurricanes Maria and Irma.”

Hyland said that offers of help have been pouring in, but before calling on public power utilities to send crews and equipment, the American Public Power Association is waiting for a complete damage assessment and assistance with necessary arrangements from the federal government.

“There are many logistics to coordinate,” he said. “We need to know where the crews will be housed and if we can ensure their safety and health,” he said, and FEMA must be allowed to focus on life and safety first.

“Puerto Rico is American. We Can’t Ignore It Now,” the New York Times said in a Sept. 24 editorial.  A century after the United States extended qualified citizenship to the residents of Puerto Rico, “that link has never been more vital to the island commonwealth, as it reels from the devastation of Hurricane Maria,” the newspaper said, adding that a federal role in rebuilding the island “will be paramount.”

Gov. Rossello has requested that the federal government approve a cost share adjustment from 75-100 percent for federal public assistance for debris removal and emergency protective measures (including repairs to power lines) from FEMA for a limited period of time. Thereafter, the governor has requested a 90 percent federal cost share. This request is being considered by the federal government.