U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Power Restoration Strategy for Puerto Rico Post-Maria

In my previous post, I noted that Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico. His main criticism is that the USACE has not moved quickly enough to repair the island’s electrical system. In this post, I want to discuss the USACE’s role in the restoration efforts and its overall strategy.

The Robert T Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Act’s provisions inform the federal government’s responses to natural disasters. The act gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) the authority to coordinate the federal government’s relief efforts. FEMA relies on the USACE for emergency support for “public works and engineering-related” projects, which include everything from removing debris to the installment of “blue roofs”. FEMA can also provide the USACE long-term assignments in these areas, as it did on 30 September 2017 when FEMA tasked the USACE to assist PREPA’s efforts to rebuild the electric system.

Like FEMA, the USACE’s role in disaster relief is to support the state government’s restoration efforts. Thus, it is wrong to say that the USACE is in control over PREPA’s work. The USACE is part of the Power Restoration Task Force to Coordinate the Restoration Efforts. The following organizational chart, based on a recent PREPA document, captures the USACE’s role in the Task Force.

Organizational_Chart_PowerRest_TaskForce_PR2018 (1)

The USACE’s power restoration strategy can be divided into four elements. First, the USACE has been installing temporary emergency generators throughout the island. These generators, which most have been installed by the USACE’s 249th Engineering Battalion, have powered critical facilities, including hospitals, fire stations, water treatment plants, water pumps, and telecommunication towers and so forth.

The second set of efforts have been linked to the electricity system’s power generation capacities. The USACE’s goal has been to work closely with PREPA and private contractors to increase electricity generation to a level between 2,500 and 3,000 megawatts, which represents the electric system’s average peak load before the hurricanes struck the island.

The third element is the restoration of the electric transmission system. Hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed 680 out of the 800 the transmissions towers that connect the system’s power plants to the distribution system. A recent study explains that only 15% of theses towers were built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. It also noted the storm affected over two-thirds of the system’s 334 transmission and sub-transmission stations, which convert electricity to a lower voltage so it can be distributed to the system’s residential, governmental, commercial and industrial customers.

The fourth element is the rebuilding of the distribution system, which is “made up of roughly 1,200 circuits, with over 30,000 miles of overhead and underground lines.” Because that the system was not built to withstand a Category 4 storm, Hurricanes Irma and Maria knocked down over 50,000 utility poles and damaged close to 75% of the circuits.

This four-part strategy puts in perspective why restoring Puerto Rico’s electric system has been so challenging. And while the organizational chart shows that the USACE is not leading these efforts, for better and worse, it is the most important actor in the Task Force. In the next posts, we will look at the USACE’s work in the four elements of this strategy. This will give us an opportunity to further analyze its commitments to the overall effort.


Consequences of an Unrealistic Timeline: The Politics of Restoring Electricity to Puerto Rico’s Customers

BACKGROUND NOTE: In a previous post, titled “The Risk of Unrealistic Expectations”, I examine why restoring electricity to the island has been so slow. Since then, I have been researching this issue and it is now part of a wider academic project examining U.S.-Puerto Rico relations after Hurricane Maria. In this post, I focus on Governor Rosselló’s criticisms of the U.S. Army Corps Engineers’ (USACE) strategy and efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers following Hurricane Maria. The next posts look at the USACE’s strategy and examines the data connected to these efforts.

On 27 September 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ordered the U.S. Army Corps of the Engineers (USACE) to work with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to restore the island’s electric system, which was devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

From all the issues Puerto Rico has faced since Hurricane Maria, restoring electricity to the island’s customers has probably received the most media attention. It probably ranks as the most controversial topic of discussion among Puerto Ricans. The USACE’s efforts have not been  free from controversy. The main sticking point has been the timeline to restore electric service.

On 14 October 2017, writing in FEMA’s Blog, Brigadier General Diana Holland, the USACE’s Commander for the South Atlantic division, noted:

We believe that 80% of the system is affected, but that is only an estimate. We know that it took five months to restore the majority of power following Hurricane Georges… and I have been told that the damage this time is more extensive.

On that same day, Ricardo Rosselló, the island’s governor, announced PREPA’s timeline to restore electric service, promising that his administration would reestablish power to 95% of customers by 15 December 2017. Table 1 captures the governor’s timeline.

Table 1. Rosselló’s Timeline for Restoring the Electric System 


Generation Goal

Actual Generation


31 October 2017




15 November 2017




1 December 2017




15 December 2017




A week later Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the Commanding General of the USACE, said that most Puerto Ricans should have power by the end of May 2018. The USACE’s timeline has not really changed since mid-October 2017. USACE officials believe that most customers will have power restored by the end of February 2018 and they hope to complete the entire project by May 2018.

Given the USACE’s views, why did Governor Rosselló announce such an unrealistic timeline? In an interview on 27 December 2017 with Agencia EFE, Rosselló insisted that USACE officials had personally assured him that they could meet his timeline. Of course, it is plausible that the governor was under this impression. But, it is unlikely that USACE agreed to this plan as PREPA’s executive director, Ricardo Ramos, told the press on 27 September 2017 that it would take six months to reestablish power to Puerto Rico’s customers. Moreover, repeated statements from the USACE personnel contradict Rosselló’s opinions on the matter.

In one of her recent columns, Sandra Rodriguez de Cotto argues that Ramos’s remarks did not sit well with the governor’s closest advisors. She also writes that the experience may have affected his connections to Rosselló’s inner circle and that his demeanor and body language had changed after the incident. Was Ramos pressured to conform with the governor’s timeline, even though he believed that it would take longer to reestablish power?

Two days before Rosselló’s announced his timeline, Ramos was asked by a reporter to explain when he thought power would be restore to the island’s customers, he said:

In terms of the power system restoration, for cultural reasons, we’re not saying exactly what the date is, because we will get expectations that will put pressure on the utility and its employees.

David Ferris of E&E News seems to have been surprised by Ramos’s remarks. He noted:

That statement would make the typical utility executive raise his or her eyebrows in disbelief. Confronted with angry customers, the CEOs of mainland U.S. power companies might prefer not to raise expectations about when a blackout will end. Yet they usually give their best guess, knowing that shrugging would only incur the wrath of customers and after them regulators and politicians.

Citing Puerto Rican lawmakers, Ferris concludes that Ramos’s statement is an outgrowth of PREPA’s corporate culture which places little value on transparency or public accountability. While his assessment is correct, his analysis fails to understand that Ramos’s statement was more calculated. Under pressure to conform with Rosselló’s more aggressive timeline, he decided to punt and let others answer the question.

It is this background that may explain why Ramos approved two controversial contracts with Whitefish Energy for $300 million and Cobra Energy for another $200 million. It could also explain why PREPA and the Rosselló administration did not sign mutual assistance agreements with the American Public Power Association (APPA) or other U.S. utilities in the mainland. Once these contracts were signed, PREPA officials believed these companies would help its crews meet the governor’s timeline.

But these decisions proved to be disastrous for the recovery efforts. FEMA and the USACE had not been informed of these two contracts and they did not approve them. Given Whitefish’s lack of experience, exorbitant charges and problems connected to the bidding process, the Rosselló administration was pressured by the U.S. Congress and FEMA to cancel the contract. While Rosselló distanced himself from the Whitefish scandal, emphasizing that he had little say in PREPA’s decisions, this strategy undermined Rosselló’s timeline and tainted his credibility with Puerto Ricans, lawmakers in Washington, and Trump administration officials.

After the cancellation of the Whitefish contract and frustrated by all the criticisms, Rosselló met with Nick Brown and Jessica Resnick-Ault of Reuters and during the interview he lashed out at the USACE blaming the slow progress to a “lack of urgency” among USACE officials. He noted that: “Everything that has been done right now has been done by PREPA or the subcontractors PREPA has had.” In addition, Rosselló told Brown and Resnick-Ault that because of the USACE’s slow efforts, his administration was pushed to sign mutual assistance agreements with utilities in New York and Florida to speed-up the recovery process.

Rosselló’s current views of the USACE’s efforts are still the same, but he has recently argued that the slow pace of the recovery efforts is tied to the island’s territorial status, suggesting the federal government has treated Puerto Rico’s disaster differently than other states’ natural disasters. Are Rosselló’s opinions correct? Has the USACE, when it comes to the the restoration of electric services, dropped the ball or treated Puerto Rico differently from other missions in the U.S. mainland?

I will explore in future posts. But for now, it seems clear that one reason why the restoration of electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers has been so slow can be linked to Rosselló’s decision to unveil an unrealistic timeline that pressured Ramos and his colleagues at PREPA to device an equally unrealistic strategy.

The Risk of Unrealistic Expectations: Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Electrical System and the Rosselló Administration’s Credibility Crisis

The Puerto Rican government currently faces two crises. One caused by Hurricanes Irma’s and Maria’s destruction of the island’s infrastructure. The other is a credibility crisis caused by  the government’s incapacity to address Puerto Rico’s post-Maria challenges and worsened by Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s unrealistic expectations about the recovery efforts.

The efforts to restore electricity to the island’s customers is a good example of these unrealistic expectations. On October 14, 2017, Rosselló promised that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) would reestablish electricity to 95% of customers before December 15.  During the news conference, he also ordered PREPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to meet a set of short-term goals, captured in the table below.

Date Electricity Generation Goal
Difference Between Actual Generation & Stated Goal 
October 31 30% +3%
November 15 50% -21%
December 1 80% -14%
December 15 95%   ?

The following graph help us see the pace of power restoration. The horizontal colored lines each represent one of the goals listed in the above table, while the blue trend line represents the percentage of electricity generated from September 21 to December 1, 2017.

chart (62)

The graph also illustrates some of the challenges the electrical system has faced in this time period. For example on November 15, PREPA met the goal of 50% electricity generation, but a problem with one of the high voltage transmission lines reduced the figure to 29%.

Why did Rosselló set in place these ambitious goals? After all, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), as I noted in a previous post, explained that these goals were unrealistic from the get go. One explanation is that Rosselló may have set these goals to encourage PREPA, private contractors and the USACE  to work harder and faster. Another more cynical explanation is that “groupthink” has affected the governor’s decision-making process,  forcing his advisors to conform with Rosselló’s understanding of the crisis and suppressing any form of dissension amongst his inner circle.

Regardless of the reasons, Rosselló’s decision to set these unrealistic expectations and PREPA’s and the USACE’s inability to meet these goals are starting to wear on Puerto Ricans’ patience. While we do not have any public opinion data, it seems that anger against Rosselló and his government is growing in the island. In Washington, D.C., more and more lawmakers are raising serious questions about the Puerto Rican government’s capacity to lead the island’s recovery efforts.


Puerto Rico’s Residential Electricity Rates (2000-2017)

chart (59)

As Puerto Rico’s Autoridad de Energia Electrica (AEE) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowly rebuild the island’s electric grid following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, let’s remember that Puerto Rican residents, especially in the last four years, pay one of the highest rates for electricity in the United States. How high is the price of electricity when compared to the rates paid by Americans in other states? We will explore this question in a few days.

These rates were obtained from the U.S. Energy Information Agency which started to collect information for Puerto Rico in 2014. The other rates were collected by the Puerto Rico Energy Commission.

Electricity Generation in Puerto Rico Following Hurricanes Irma and Maria

chart (53)

On November 17, 2017, Ricardo Ramos stepped down as the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Governor Ricardo Rosselló quickly accepted his resignation and noted that controversies connected to Ramos’s decisions post-Maria had become a distraction. Once he appointed an interim replacement, Rosselló reemphasized that the goal is to restore electricity to 95% of PREPA’s customers by Christmas. Is this objective feasible? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as noted in previous posts, has made it clear that they expect to restore power to most Puerto Ricans by February 2018.

In today’s graph, we chart the percentage of electricity generated by PREPA from September 5, 2017 – the day before Hurricane Irma skirted the island’s northeast coast – to November 17.

The data before September 29, 2017 was collected by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office for Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration. The rest has been made public in the Puerto Rican’s Government Portal – StatusPR. This is not to say that this portal’s information is accurate. For instance, on November 15 it reported that PREPA’s electricity production was at 50% but the information did not take into account a power outage that reduced production to around 20%, increasing to 37% by that night.

As of today, November 18, PREPA’s electricity generation is still under 50%. It is not clear how many Puerto Ricans actually have electricity at home, as PREPA and the Puerto Rican government claim that they can’t provide an accurate estimate. The U.S. Department of Energy on November 16 noted that 57 out of 78 municipalities “are partially energized or have energized facilities”.

Many Puerto Ricans, especially in the island’s interior, have had no power for over 70 days.