Appeal to Puerto Rican diaspora intensifies amid post-hurricane crisis

SAN JUAN – While Puerto Rico continues its struggle to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, commonwealth House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez reiterated his appeal to the Puerto Rican diaspora to take a leading role in the island’s recovery.

While maintaining his belief in the ability of Puerto Ricans living stateside to influence federal officials, Méndez announced Tuesday that the newly created Special Total Commission of the House will establish workshops with the diaspora in order to request funds.

Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez (Juan J. Rodríguez / CB)

“[We want] the pressing needs that exist in Puerto Rico to be known throughout the nation. Puerto Ricans in the states have that power, they are more and more and we are going to use that in favor of our people,” he said, referring to the millions of Puerto Ricans who make up the diaspora.

Méndez explained that the initiative will last for the next four weeks, until December, when the U.S. Congress is expected to consider the approval of a long-term-recovery aid package that should be “adjusted to the new reality” on the island

To address the crisis the major hurricane left in its wake, which to this day has kept 70% of the island in the dark and another 20% without water service, the speaker said the package approved in Congress must address the island’s healthcare and home reconstruction.

Senate defeats Gov. Rosselló bill to establish gov’t response in emergencies

The Special Commission will establish communication channels with several organizations that group Puerto Ricans in states such as New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to agree on a program of visits and calls to members of Congress.

“Puerto Rico needs an aid package to restart our economy, which took a devastating blow due to the impact of this historic hurricane,” he said. “We’re going to get organized and we are going to outline a plan of action, to exert pressure at state capitals and at a national level.”

Puerto Rico governor turns to diaspora to lobby Congress

This new appeal to the diaspora is not the government’s first. A little more than two weeks after María, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares urged Puerto RIcans residing stateside to call their members of congress and request approval of short- and long-term aid packages.

Increased concerns about exodus

Méndez’s announcement comes at a time when several sectors fear the massive exodus of Puerto Ricans because of the catastrophe that grips the island. As recently as Tuesday, the executive director of the fiscal board, Natalie Jaresko, expressed her concern about the matter.

During the10th public meeting of the fiscal oversight board established by federal law, Jaresko expressed the importance of promoting an encouraging scenario, so the population does not abandon the island at a time when it is estimated that 15% of its residents could emigrate before December.

That is how the representative of the Government to the fiscal control board, Christian Sobrino, put it. If correct, the estimate could represent the departure of 340,000 to 510,000 island residents. Jaresko stressed that the government’s restructuring must consider the demographic changes.

Senate defeats Gov. Rosselló bill to establish gov’t response in emergencies

SAN JUAN – In what could have been the first definitive action of Puerto RIco’s Legislative Assembly to push forth the island’s recovery after the onslaught of Hurricane Maria, on Monday the Senate defeated a measure presented by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to establish the Law to Address Emergencies and Disasters.

Senate Bill 655 seeks, among other things, to group several executive orders to deal with future emergencies. In addition, it proposes “to recognize the faculties and powers of the Governor of Puerto Rico during a disaster.”

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

In haste to address the measure, without holding a debate, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz called legislators to the floor to cast their votes. “I want this bill,” he said after refusing to allow a brief recess.

The measure, which granted powers to the governor to manage state and federal funds was defeated in a 0-28 vote. The bill also proposed an “Emergency Response Group” with members appointed by the governor.

“We had let the governor and the secretary of Public Affairs [Ramón Rosario] know there were some provisions that were unconstitutional, because the Legislative Branch cannot yield or renounce rights that the Constitution expressly says it has to exercise,” Rivera Schatz said.

Among the Senate leader’s main concerns is the governor’s Executive Order 65, establishing the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (OCRR by its Spanish initials), created by Rosselló Nevares to operate “all funds and resources available” to address the crisis.

Gov. Rosselló defends new Puerto Rico Central Recovery & Reconstruction Office

After stating that he discussed the unconstitutionality of the measure with Rosselló Nevares, the Senate president did not rule out going to court to fight the apparent pursuit of the executive branch to supplant powers conferred by the Constitution to the Legislative Assembly.

“What I wouldn’t accept is that the governor renounce his faculties, that’s why I fought the [fiscal control] board. Defending the faculties of the governor; I criticized the board and I cannot allow the executive or anyone to usurp the powers of the Legislative Assembly,” Rivera Schatz explained.

The New Progressive Party legislator held what he called a “productive meeting” with the president of the Government Development Bank (GDB) and government representative to the fiscal control board, Christian Sobrino, to discuss his concerns.

“I have the lawyers, our consultants, preparing a communication, detailing the objections [to the measure]. We are going to send it to the governor to evaluate it to see if the concerns we have are addressed, and thus put an end to the controversy,” he told the media.

Rivera Schatz stressed that section 1of the executive order was unconstitutional. It establishes that the OCRR would be able to identify, procure and administrate “all state, federal and / or private resources available to the Government or any Government Entity” to be invested after María.

Further on, the 12-page document signed Oct. 23 includes the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch in its definition of “governmental entity,” which Rivera Schatz said implies the executive branch intending to manage resources of the other branches, in violation of the Constitution.

However, Rosselló Nevares defended the executive order Tuesday, saying the new office would not have absolute control over the funds for the recovery of Puerto Rico. The governor attributed his decision to a “planning issue” to control the management of resources.

Regarding the so-called “Law of the New Government” that Rosselló Nevares submitted to the Legislature along with the defeated bill, Rivera Schatz said public hearings will be held for that particular measure, which proposes consolidating agencies by executive order.

Although the governor repeatedly assured that provisions of the bill were suggested by the Senate president, Rivera Schatz said that consolidating or establishing government agencies by executive order is “not the right thing” legally.

Puerto Rico governor decrees curfew on Halloween

SAN JUAN – In search of avoiding a rise in crime during Halloween while more than 70% of Puerto Rico remains without electric power service after the passage of Hurricane Maria more than a month ago, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló decreed a curfew for the evening of Oct. 31.

The decision was announced Monday on the governor’s Twitter account, where he indicated that the decree will begin Tuesday at 10 p.m. and extend until Wednesday at 5 a.m. “to ensure the safety of citizens.”

Whitefish to continue Puerto Rico work until power lines are up

This is not the first time the governor imposes a curfew. Following the devastation wrought by the major hurricane, Rosselló imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew as a measure to “maintain order” during the emergency in its aftermath.

After several amendments and nearly a month, the governor eliminated the decree on Oct. 18. During the period, 97 arrests were carried out for violations of the order for which state and federal government personnel dedicated to recovery tasks, among others, were exempt.

Puerto Rico Senate asks Comptroller to investigate Prepa contracts

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

SAN JUAN – While the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa), Ricardo Ramos, asserts the contested contract with Whitefish Energy was not illegally granted, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz on Thursday requested the Comptroller’s Office conduct a “fast but thorough” investigation of contracts awarded by that public corporation.

In a letter addressed to Comptroller Yesmín Valdivieso, Rivera Schatz requested her office inquire about the contracts that the public corporation has granted following Puerto Rico’s ongoing emergency since Hurricane Maria struck the island, as well as to provide a “cost analysis of other available alternatives.”

Puerto Rico gov: Fiscal board exists to make recommendations, not manage gov’t

The Senate leader also asked for information on available and estimated cash flow and billings generated and payments issued, at least until Oct. 31.

Thirty-six days after the hurricane hit the island, Rivera Schatz emphasized the investigation must be conducted “with the speed that millions of citizens demand, that they need the services of the [power] authority to be re-established as soon possible.” To date, the Prepa’s power has only been able to achieve 26% of it generation capacity.

The request for investigation comes after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló ordered the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) to audit the Prepa contracts and asked the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security to also investigate the agreements.

Puerto Rico Senate to go after multimillion-dollar Whitefish Energy contract

This has not been the only request for an investigation to have transpired in the past few days. In the Legislative Assembly, Sen. Juan Dalmau Ramírez, from the Puerto Rican Independence Party, and Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz, from the Popular Democratic Party, also asked for investigations.

Meanwhile, with opposition from the central government, the fiscal control board announced Wednesday its intention to appoint Noel Zamot as Prepa’s chief transformation officer. Rosselló pointed out that the administration of public corporations falls only on those “democratically elected.”

Puerto Rico Senate to go after multimillion-dollar Whitefish Energy contract

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Senate has joined the controversy created by the $300 million contract awarded to Whitefish Energy to assist in the recovery of the island’s electric power system. Sen. Juan Dalmau, from the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), called for an examination of contracts awarded by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) since September to the Montana-based company.

Dalmau filed Senate Resolution 466 five days after the contract was signed with the allegedly inexperienced company, which states that the island’s emergency situation after being hit by Hurricane María cannot be a cause for “favoritism and improvisation.”

“That contract, at the moment, has more shadow than light,” he said. “At other times in Puerto Rico, if history has taught us something, moments of crisis and public pressure have led governments to sign leonine [huge] contracts, which in no way benefited Puerto Rico.”

Dalmau added that the legislative assembly’s responsibility is now to investigate the conditions under which the contracts were awarded, which have been widely criticized and defended by others, such as Ricardo Ramos, Prepa’s executive director.

Sen. Juan Dalmau (Courtesy photo)

The senator stressed that the emergency caused by the storm allows contracts to be signed without the due bidding process, which “calls for us to be more careful.” While Dalmau said his aim is not to obstruct the island’s recovery, he stressed that this should not become a process to issue “blank checks.”

“In this moment of crisis, a surgeon’s [touch] is required. That means the company that is going to be hired for reconstruction services has to have a history of dealing with this type of crisis. Secondly, it has to have public credibility in handling similar crises, [and] that it is clear of…political influences,” he said.

This last point was revealed in an investigation by The Daily Beast, which Dalmau highlighted during an aside with local press, stating that Whitefish “didn’t even have two employees” when contracted, and is based in Montana, which has “the same population as Maricao.”

With these concerns in mind, the senator filed the resolution to order the Senate’s Innovation, Telecommunications, Urbanism & Infrastructure Committee to launch a comprehensive investigation of the contracts Prepa awarded for repairs to its damaged infrastructure.

The spokesman for the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) in the Senate, Eduardo Bhatia, joined the call for an investigation, saying he filed a motion to order the release of “all contracts” Prepa has awarded, as well as by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa).

US lawmakers seek probe of Puerto Rico power contract to Interior Secretary neighbor 

The minority party senators have not been alone in calling for an exhaustive investigation into the contracts awarded to Whitefish. U.S. Reps. Luis Gutiérrez and Nydia Velázquez, both Democrats of Puerto Rican origin, also expressed concerns regarding the contracts awarded after the passing of Hurricane María.

Given the suspicions raised by apparent ties between the company and President Donald Trump, Gutiérrez will ask the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the possible connection to “Trump’s White House.”

Puerto Rico senator sounds note of caution about yielding legislative powers

SAN JUAN – Without the usual extensive debates and free of the usual delays, the Senate of Puerto Rico has resumed its uninterrupted ordinary session with an appeal from Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia: Caution with the measure that would give the executive branch the ability to consolidate agencies.

“[In the Legislature] we have certain powers because the country gave them to us and those of the Constitution of Puerto Rico. Let’s not complain about the undemocratic powers the fiscal control board has if we’re yielding the democratic powers we do have,” Bhatia said.

The former Senate president emphasized that legislators need to be “very vigilant” about the measure the executive presented Monday to the Legislative Assembly, pointing out that the governor of Puerto Rico has more power than “any other governor” in the United States.

Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia (Yoel Parrilla/CB)

“I want to work hand in hand with the governor [Ricardo Rosselló], I don’t want to work behind the governor. I want to work with him to rebuild Puerto Rico, and I’m sure we all want the same thing, but we’re not going to do that from the trailer in the back,” Bhatia said.

During a later turn lasting 25 minutes, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said the idea of reducing the number of agencies is not new and that it already began to happen through the consolidation of seven entities into the Department of Public Security to save $28 million.

Rivera Schatz explained that the measure responds to his proposal to approve a single bill that would allow the governor to consolidate agencies without the need to debate in both chambers a plan explaining how the operation of the agencies would be redesigned.

“The Legislative Assembly seeks, through a single bill, to be able to manage what is being called the redesign, the consolidation of the government of Puerto Rico. But in no way has the Legislative Assembly given a blank check [to the executive],” the Senate leader said.

Ordinary Session Extended

After nearly a month-long recess due to Hurricane Maria, the Senate approved extending the second ordinary session until Dec. 15, instead of Nov. 14. The decision is intended to allow the legislature to address emergency measures.

During Tuesday’s three-hour session, House Bill 480 was approved to include such items as liquid soap and disinfecting towelettes in the price freeze order during the emergency period after Hurricane María.

The Senate will resume its session Oct. 24.

House Creates Special Total Commission

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, made way for a Special Total Commission, which will look for solutions to the crisis brought about by Maria. It also authorized representatives to serve as liaisons between federal and local agencies.

“Representatives are authorized to continue supporting and acting as intergovernmental links in order to coordinate and help relief efforts by federal, state and municipal agencies, as well as donations by private citizens and private organizations,” reads the four-page measure.

Puerto Rico power utility director: Palo Seco plant won’t run ‘under any circumstance’

SAN JUAN – While a great part of Puerto Rico remains in the dark after the catastrophic passage of Hurricane María, Electric Power Authority (Prepa) Executive Director Ricardo Ramos stressed Thursday that the Central Palo Seco power station between Cataño and Toa Baja will not operate “under any circumstances.”
The engineer based his decision on a report, which hasn’t been published, that alludes to the integrity of the public corporation’s infrastructure. He highlighted the utility’s “corroded beams.” Prepa put Palo Seco out of commission in August, citing “structural defects.”
“We were very fortunate nothing happened [to Palo Seco] with María, [but] the fact nothing happened with María, as an engineer, I take as: If it was weak before, now it’s weaker. The Palo Seco plant won’t be operating under any circumstance,” he declared.

Ricardo Ramos, center, expects electric service to be restored island-wide within six months. (Juan J. Rodríguez / CB)

Ramos added that negative reports about the plant’s infrastructure are not recent, because since “eight years ago” it has been affirmed that Palo Seco “is not safe, and in the past nobody took action.” Amid the power station’s potential collapse, he assured the decision stands.

“We must reinforce generation in the north until a line reaches the San Juan area. In fact, even with a line reaching the San Juan area, generation is stabilized, but there will be a moment when I won’t be able to connect more people because I need more generation,” he explained.
The utility director and Public Affairs Secretary Ramón Rosario defended the $35.1 million contract granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to Weston Solutions to assist in restoring the island’s electric grid.
The contract, the first in a series of USACE efforts to restore power service, will result in two 25-megawatt generators installed in the Palo Seco complex. When questioned about the cost of the contract, Rosario clarified that federal funds were being used.
“There is a report that says employees who work on these units put their lives on the line,” the secretary said. “The fact the physical infrastructure resisted [ Hurricane María] doesn’t mean it’s safe to put hundreds of employees’ lives at risk.”
Ramos reaffirmed his commitment to have the utility generating at 25 percent by early November. Currently, 22 days after the major hurricane, only 17 percent of the island has electric service. Ramos expects the system to be fully restored within six months.

La Plata dam operational

In the same briefing offered at the government’s command center during recovery efforts, Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa) President Eli Díaz announced that 64 percent of the public utility’s customers have had their service restored.
“The La Plata system is once again producing water in all areas of Bayamón [and] the area of Toa Alta. We continue activating pump stations,” Díaz said. “We hope that in the next 48 hours, [service] will reach Naranjito areas.”

FEMA assigns $3M for emotional support in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN – The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has granted $3 million to the Puerto Rico Administration of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services (ASSMCA by its Spanish initials) to offer counseling as well as short- and long-term emotional support to the victims of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico.

Administrator Suzanne Roig said the allocation was assigned after presenting a request to the federal agency focused on “addressing the emotional aspect” of those affected by the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in 80 years.

Puerto Rico gov’t bets on flyers, pills to prevent health emergency

“We recognize that the experience during and after Hurricane María, combined with the feelings caused by significant loss tend to present post-traumatic reactions that require profound intervention,” Roig Fuertes said.

With the federal funds, ASSMCA will launch a project called “Un Nuevo Comenzar… Anímate” (A New Beginning… Get Ready). The administrator indicated it will begin in the coming days days, with 319 clinical professionals who will visit the most affected communities and provide emotional support.

“We are convinced our people have the strength, capacity and willpower needed to emerge gracefully from the critical moments. We are confident Puerto Rico will rise, and more united than ever, we will be able to build a better country for all,” Roig said.

Puerto Rico gov’t bets on flyers, pills to prevent health emergency

SAN JUAN – Amid a potential health emergency in Puerto Rico due to a lack of potable water after Hurricane María three weeks ago, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced that the Health Department will launch a massive campaign.

“I have always established that public health emergencies are one of the long-term challenges we must not only address but also anticipate and tackle,” Rosselló said as he stressed that a great part of this prevention effort should be “informational” for communities.

Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, right, said four people infected with leptospirosis have died, but the exact cause has not been determined. (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

The campaign includes the distribution of informative flyers across the island on how to disinfect water, as well as about 1 million Aquatabs, or water purification tablets, and over 20,000 high-performance filters to purify water.

Among the advice included in the “Drink safe water” flyer is to consume bottled water whenever possible and to use potable water for oral hygiene. It also recommends to avoid drinking water from non-potable sources and washing utensils if the water isn’t potable.

The governor’s announcement during a press briefing served as a preamble to reveal there have been 10 reported cases of leptospirosis, of which four resulted in death. It is unclear if these deaths were caused by the dangerous bacteria typically transmitted through contact with rodent urine in stagnant water.

Public Affairs Secretary Ramón Rosario said the death toll related to the hurricane increased to 44, one more than Tuesday. However, it doesn’t include the four possible deaths by leptospirosis.

FEMA advances $70 million for Puerto Rico water utility repairs

The governor explained that these deaths–two in Bayamón, one in Mayagüez and another in Carolina–will not be included in María’s death toll until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can confirm they were caused by the bacteria or another disease, such as dengue.

“I must still reiterate that it isn’t known if [the deaths] are a product of the bacteria or not because the bacteria’s symptoms are also the symptoms of other diseases like, for example, dengue,” Rosselló emphasized. Symptoms include fever, headaches and muscular and joint pain.

Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez said Wednesday his agency is active “on the streets” to prevent deaths from contagious diseases. The official assured he has visited several hospitals to ensure people receive “quality” service.

Doctors arrive in Puerto Rico to volunteer in rural areas

“During this moment, we must be on the streets, we can’t be in an office. We can’t be dedicating [time] to bureaucracy, we must go out on the streets to prevent deaths. Now, the most important thing is prevention and education to avoid epidemic outbreaks,” he said.

Rodríguez said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will supply three spray trucks that, along with the Health Department’s own, will reduce the spread of such diseases as Zika and dengue. The department has also requested 70 spray units from FEMA.

Puerto Rico investigates post-hurricane disease outbreak 

“The biggest problem we have is infections that can begin in shelters,” Rodríguez said, adding that the prevention campaign in the island’s 108 shelters will educate on proper hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer to prevent conditions, such as conjunctivitis.

To Caribbean Business‘ question regarding what action, beyond flyers, the Health Department will take to prevent a public health emergency, Rodríguez replied that the agency will work alongside the Department of Defense (DOD) to reach remote areas.

“We will bring volunteer doctors, we will bring medicine and at the same time, offering prevention campaigns with these flyers [on] how to correctly use these ‘Clorox’ pills, the filters. So we are doing a full community outreach,” the Health secretary said.

FEMA advances $70 million for Puerto Rico water utility repairs

FEMA’s Alejandro de la Campa (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

SAN JUAN – The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Caribbean region director, Alejandro de la Campa, announced Wednesday that the agency has approved a $70 million advance for Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa) repairs after the passage of Hurricane María.

To date, the public utility has restored water service to 64.22% of its customers, more than 140,000 of which regained service after the La Plata River reservoir was powered Monday. The number represents the largest customer increase in a one-day period.

The multimillion-dollar sum is in addition to $54.6 million advanced Tuesday to the Electric Power Authority (Prepa) for reconstruction works of the system. De la Campa also noted that $115 million has been awarded in contracts and 50,000 utility posts and 6,500 miles of power lines have been purchased.

Thousands lost power service Tuesday after Prepa engineers confirmed a collapse in a Central San Juan electricity plant. Now, the percentage of customers with electricity is at 10.6%, a 5% drop. This is the second time the plant goes down.

US Congress recommends multimillion-dollar emergency relief for Puerto Rico

In Wednesday’s press conference at the government’s emergency command center, De la Campa said FEMA has disbursed $210 million to municipalities, government agencies and families affected by the Category 4 storm that struck the island three weeks ago.

According to the FEMA official, this number will “keep rising daily based on the [aid] requests we are receiving and the coordination with the government, municipalities and agencies.” Petitions for aid already exceed 250,000.

As for water and food supplies, De la Campa announced that 4921,000 liters of water and 565,000 meals will be distributed Wednesday islandwide, while two barges were arriving with 4.6 million liters of water in addition to the 8 already million received.

According to the most recent update, the number of gas stations open remains at 860 since Oct. 6. Meanwhile, the number of people in the island’s 108 shelters is down to 5,742–roughly 300 fewer than Tuesday–as well as 123 sheltered pets.

Moreover, 178 bank branches are open, three more compared with Tuesday’s data. The total of cooperatives stands at 140 and 628 ATMs are working. Also, 393 of the island’s 456 supermarkets are open and 782 pharmacies are processing online prescritions.

Regarding telecommunication services, Public Affairs Secretary Ramón Rosario said 53.6 percent are operational. The total includes fixed and wireless services. This, in addition to 18.9 percent of cell antenas and 33.6 percent of cell towers.