Disaster Response
Press Release

Oct 6 FAQs: Hurricane Maria restoration efforts

The American Public Power Association (Association) is supporting as requested the mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to restore electric power to the people of Puerto Rico. For this reason, and because USACE has people on the ground in Puerto Rico, the Association has been referring press inquiries to USACE. However, questions continue to be asked about the Association’s own role in coordinating electric power restoration by its member public power utilities. To assist in answering these questions, the Association has prepared these FAQs.

1.    Who is in charge of the electric power restoration effort in Puerto Rico?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has given USACE the mission to lead the immediate power restoration effort. USACE is working with the electric utility that serves Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which is a member of the Association. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Emergency Support Function (ESF-12) is also involved in restoration efforts as the electricity sector’s “sector specific agency” (SSA).

PREPA has engaged a contractor, Whitefish Energy, LLC (Whitefish), to assist in power restoration efforts for PREPA. The Association understands that Whitefish has previously worked on the island and is familiar with PREPA’s facilities. Whitefish has begun the process of marshalling trucks, equipment and crews for the restoration effort.

The entire electric utility industry is standing by to send help as requested. Because PREPA is a public power utility (a unit of the territorial government, rather than being under private ownership) other public power utilities are available to send crews and equipment. Through the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) the investor-owned electric companies and rural electric cooperatives also are standing by to help as called upon; this high-level coordination has been important to support restoration efforts on the mainland.  

2.    Who has already sent crews/equipment out there? Under what terms?

Initially, the New York Power Authority (NYPA), another Association member, sent utility technical subject matter experts and drones as part of a state-led mission initiated by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, at the request of Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello. NYPA’s personnel have been working with PREPA on damage assessments of specific PREPA generation, transmission and substation facilities.

FEMA, USACE and DOE now also have personnel on the ground. JEA, an Association member in Jacksonville, Florida is now sending trucks and crews to Puerto Rico. JEA is sending crews under arrangements made directly with Whitefish; 41 trained workers are flying to Puerto Rico. Trucks and other equipment are being sent by ship.

3.    How many have been sent? Are more on the way?

The Association is aware that Whitefish has also reached out to other contractors and electric utilities, but has no detailed information on the status of those efforts. Because the Association does not have personnel on the ground in Puerto Rico and has not to date been officially asked to help coordinate restoration efforts in Puerto Rico, USACE and Whitefish would be the best source for this information.

4.    What is mutual aid — how does it work? How is it invoked?

Mutual aid is just what it sounds like — utilities helping each other in times of need. The Association, together with state and regional public power utilities and organizations, coordinates the mutual aid network for the nation’s public power utilities. More than 1,100 utilities across the country participate. Utilities that want to give and get help for power restoration after a disaster sign up for this network. The network also maintains a list of independent contractors that can be called upon when extra help is needed.

When (and even before) a major disaster hits a utility’s territory and the utility knows that its own crews and equipment won’t be enough to restore power quickly, it calls for mutual aid. It provides its best estimate of how many people it needs and what type of skills they should have. The utility also specifies equipment and material needs. Other utilities in the network respond with what they can offer.

The actual dispatch and movement of crews from different utilities is coordinated by utility and public power association personnel who volunteer as regional and national mutual aid coordinators. Such efforts require substantial logistics management. The utility that is requesting mutual aid must make arrangements to house, feed and care for the crews that come in from outside, and provide them the necessary work/safety briefings to do their jobs effectively. Requesting utilities generally send their own employees out to support visiting crews.

5.    Who pays for mutual aid?

Typically, a public power utility requesting help pays other utilities that send help. Rates are determined through agreements that are put in place well in advance of a disaster. As units of state and local government, public power utilities are generally eligible for partial reimbursement of restoration expenses by FEMA, if all the relevant conditions and requirements are met.

In the case of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, the federal government has declared certain categories of expenses (debris removal and emergency service restoration) 100% reimbursable from FEMA if incurred within 180 days from the declaration of a major disaster.  

6.    Is the Puerto Rico situation different? Why hasn’t the Association coordinated mutual aid to assist PREPA?

Support through the Association’s mutual aid network is initiated when the affected utility requests aid. To date, PREPA has not requested aid from the Association; rather, it has engaged Whitefish to marshal the resources required to undertake power restoration. Communications with PREPA and Whitefish have been difficult due to the telecommunications issues on the island.

7.    Why is the pace of restoration so slow?

Again, the Association would have to refer detailed questions about the pace of restoration to USACE, Whitefish and PREPA, since they are on the ground in Puerto Rico and are much closer to the actual situation. But the situation is vastly compounded by the geography and terrain. All crews and equipment must be transported from the mainland by plane or barge. FEMA has given resources necessary to sustain life (food, water, medical supplies and personnel) first priority.

8.    What’s happening in the Virgin Islands?

Federal government crews from the DOE’s Western Area Power Administration have been in USVI and are helping with the restoration effort.

The local utility, USVI Water and Power Authority, is an Association member. USVI WAPA has requested mutual aid from the Association, to complement contract crews already engaged. The Association has worked with its mutual aid network to obtain over 40 personnel and associated equipment to go to the aid of USVI WAPA. They will commence deployment starting this weekend.