Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi on Tuesday asked the Biden administration for a major disaster declaration, which would improve the type of federal assistance residents can receive. Members of the US House and Senate also hope to consider a supplemental aid package for the island, although the timing is uncertain.
A dispute over whether and how to shift Puerto Rico toward wind, solar and other renewables is one factor in years of wrangling over the direction of the territory’s energy policies.
Under the Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act of 2019 (17-2019), PREPA, the utility company, must obtain 40 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025, 60 percent by 2040 and 100 percent by 2050. Those resources now make up 3 percent of the power generated on the island, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Schumer said that the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, which supervises the island’s electricity supply, approved a plan to reach that goal in 2025. But “PREPA has defended itself, promoting greater use of natural gas,” he said.
The senator accused PREPA and LUMA of undermining attempts by the US Department of Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to support the effort to build a resilient grid.
“These two agencies, PREPA and LUMA, cannot get in the way again, because you have seen through their inaction, the disaster and the damage that the people of Puerto Rico have suffered,” he said.
In response to a question about Schumer’s comments, FEMA Assistant Recovery Administrator Keith Turi said agency officials “see nothing but good partnerships, good relationships, and transparency here … and hope that that will continue as we go forward.”
President of Natural Resources of the House Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) also criticized a privatization effort that saw LUMA take over the network in June 2021 and, he said, subsequent network failures.
“This privatization effort has failed,” he said, adding that “you need a utility that is independent, ethical and has really strong oversight. And that’s not there yet.”
The fallout against LUMA from the island-wide power outage spread to New York state, where Attorney General Tish James on Tuesday urged the federal government to investigate the private company.
“Despite billions in federal assistance to strengthen Puerto Rico’s power grid, LUMA continues to experience frequent and prolonged outages, as well as some of the highest electricity rates in the country,” he said. in your letter, which prompted the DOE, FEMA and FERC to investigate the company.
Spokespeople for PREPA and LUMA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Power was restored to 300,000 of the 1.5 million customers as of Tuesday afternoon, according to an update from LUMA via Twitter. Those customers were without power Sunday even before Fiona slammed into the island with Category 1 winds and rainfall reaching 30 to 32 inches on the southern part of the island.
Turi said there is “really no standard” for how long to expect power to be out because storms vary significantly, but that FEMA is playing a “supporting role” in LUMA’s efforts to restore the entire grid. The federal agency stands ready to provide technical assistance and emergency funding if needed, he said.
He said it is “too early” to say what Fiona’s economic impact would be on the island.
“We know the impacts were significant,” particularly in the southern parts of the island, Turi said.
The Puerto Rican government has confirmed four deaths attributable to the storm.
Senator Bob Menendez (DN.J.) and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (DN.Y.) led a bipartisan group of 43 lawmakers who supported Pierluisi’s request that President Joe Biden declare the storm a major disaster. Such a declaration would allow FEMA to provide direct assistance to individuals to pay for housing needs and other costs, both to recover from the storm and to permanently rebuild infrastructure.
Schumer said he spoke Monday night with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who is in Puerto Rico assessing the damage and coordinating the emergency response. She said that she asked him to prepare for the federal government to cover all the costs of emergency protective services performed in Puerto Rico instead of asking the territory to bear the costs.
The “government of Puerto Rico he doesn’t have the money to design it, and people are suffering and they are our fellow citizens,” Schumer said.
Senator Brian Shatz (D-Hawaii) said during a Washington Post live event Tuesday that Congress would help Puerto Rico.
“We’re in disaster response right now,” he said. “When the disaster recovery comes around, Congress will certainly pass an emergency spending measure for the disaster in Puerto Rico, but also most likely for other disasters in the continental United States.”
Kelsey Tamborrino contributed to this report.