Governor expresses ‘dissatisfaction’ with Prepa chief’s handling of outages
Ortiz says Tropical Storm Isaias winds to blame, acknowledges tree-branch pruning not completed ahead of hurricane season
SAN JUAN – As thousands of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) remained in the dark as a result of the passage of Tropical Storm Isaias on Thursday, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced said Friday that she was dissatisfied with the performance of Prepa Executive Director José Ortiz and gave him an ultimatum to provide an explanation for the power outages and to reestablish service to most Prepa customers during the day.
“I am not satisfied with what has happened at [Prepa] because there are many without service as well as [the Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa)]. Although we know that without electric energy the water service is affected. We are making purchases so that [Prasa] can have their generators,” the governor told reporters after a visit to the west coast city of Mayagüez to inspect storm damage there.
Municipal emergency management officials estimate that such damages, mostly from flash floods that inundated homes and businesses, total at least $13 million.
Vázquez said that she has not received a full explanation from Ortiz, who said Thursday that the power outages were caused by power lines downed by wind-blown tree branches.
The Prepa chief said that 300,000 to 400,000 utility customers, or between 20 percent and 27 percent of Prepa’s 1.5 million customers, lost power at the height of the storm on Thursday. A Prepa Twitter message early Friday said that 91 percent of customers had power as of 6:30 a.m., with 9 percent still without power.
Ortiz has said publicly, including during a U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources hearing on Prepa last week, that the public utility was prepared this time around to recover more quickly if the island were struck by another storm similar in strength to Hurricane Maria, saying that the utility would be able to fully restore power in no later than two and a half months, instead of the year it took in the aftermath of the catastrophic 2017 hurricane. He has said that the transmission system that crosses the island’s mountainous region has been reinforced with towers that can withstand winds reaching 170 miles per hour.
Maximum sustained winds from Tropical Storm Isaias were clocked at 52 miles per hour in the town of Yabucoa.
Prasa Executive President Doriel Pagán Crespo said Thursday that 150,000 utility customers had “intermittent” water service due to the storm effects, in part due to lack of electric energy to power up water pumps.
Just a day before, on Wednesday, Ortiz said that a two-hour blackout that left nearly 400,000 utility customers without power on Tuesday afternoon was an act of sabotage, calling it “internal terrorism.” He said the incident was reported to the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. However, Electrical Industry & Irrigation Workers Union (Utier by its Spanish acronym) President Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo later said that the blackout was caused by tree pruning work around power lines in Mayagüez and Aguadilla, and was not intentional.
“I have the same questions that the people have. We are very worried. If there is a reason for this, we want him to present himself before the people and that is what we have asked engineer Ortiz. There has to be an explanation,” Vázquez said, noting that the Prepa chief has not provided her with a report of specific wind damage to utility lines.
Ortiz said on Thursday that the tropical storm had mostly affected customers and powerlines in the eastern zone of the island, in a corridor running from the municipalities of Humacao to Comerío. He pledged that power would be restored to most customers by Friday, given that “the problems are easy to solve.”
The Prepa chief said that power breakers shut off to protect the system after power lines came into contact with tree branches, which he called “very easy to replace,” adding that this safety mechanism to avoid downed live wires coming into contact with people. He said that a more difficult task will involve collapsed lines and poles due to fallen trees and mudslides. The contact between branches and power lines will also cause fluctuations in power, he said.
Asked Thursday about the adequacy of Prepa’s tree pruning program, Ortiz acknowledged that priority was given to removing vegetation close to major transmission lines and that work involving the 900,000 pole distribution system has yet to be completed.
“This is because if a transmission tower collapses, you are talking about people going without power for weeks,” he said during a press conference on Thursday.
Ortiz acknowledged that fewer than 200 Prepa workers have been assigned to tree trimming work, although he said the total number of workers with this task is higher due to the hiring of three private companies.
“We want to work this through a private service,” he said.
In fact, Prepa’s 2020 fiscal plan, certified by Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight & Management Board (FOMB), states that the public utility maintained a “surplus” of $153 million and a “cash reserve” of $510 million during fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, “driven by underspending in vegetation management and necessary maintenance expenses.”
The plan projects a “deficit” of $132 million during current fiscal year 2021, which began on July 1, due to the “front-end transition fee” Prepa will make, using “cash on hand,” to the LUMA Energy LLC consortium, which was hired last month to run the utility’s transmission and distribution (T&D) lines and manage services to clients in a $1.4 billion, 15-year contract.
Prepa has requested U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is overseeing the commonwealth’s debt restructuring process, to approve $136.4 million for the transition fee payment to LUMA, which includes reimbursement for salaries and expenses of those consortium employees and contractors or its affiliates that provide certain services to Prepa during the 320-day transition period, at the end of which LUMA will rebrand Prepa’s and take over its T&D system and services to customers.