When Hurricane Irma barreled toward Puerto Rico in September, residents worried that the island’s fragile electric grid, run by a power authority saddled with more than $9 billion in debt and a reputation for high rates and poor service, would not be able to take a direct hit.
The storm turned and grazed the northern coast of the island, knocking out power to about 1 million residents. Though shaken, Puerto Ricans breathed a slight sigh of relief. Within five days, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was able to restore power to more than 70 percent of affected residents.
Then came Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico sustained a direct hit from that storm, which took down the entire electric grid with it and killed 34 people, though the official death toll will probably end up higher.
Flying to the island to take in the damage himself, President Trump concluded yesterday that Puerto Rico should be “very proud” that more people didn’t die as compared to “a real catastrophe like Katrina.” More than 1,800 people died after that hurricane in 2005.
But living without electricity for four to six months — as PREPA had said may be the case for some parts of Puerto Rico even after Hurricane Irma — is still its own very real catastrophe.
Right now, less than 7 percent of the island has power, according to Puerto Rican government. In a sign of just how long it will take to bring back power to the rest of the grid, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said on Monday that it could take up to a month to restore power to just a quarter of households.
In the meantime, the rest will suffer in the dark.
The big question: Why will take so long to turn the lights back on in the U.S. territory?
The problem, in large part, is because of geography. When bad weather takes out power in a portion of the U.S. mainland, highly skilled workers from around the country descend upon the blackout to reconnect downed electric lines.
But in the contiguous United States, they get there by car. Puerto Rico is an island — one, as Trump memorably said, in a “very big ocean."
Flying in the thousands of skilled workers — such as pole diggers, tree trimmers and tower installers — to begin repair work is a time-consuming logistical hassle, especially when search-and-rescue and health-care professionals need seats on planes to the island, too.
"The biggest issue is the one that everyone knows is the obvious issue, and that's the fact that it's island. It's just not easy to get there," said Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services at American Public Power Association. "There are a lot of other issues too, but that's the one that is very frustrating."
And getting heavy equipment — such as bucket trucks, transformers and wires — to the island can take even longer because often those materials will arrive by ship from ports in Florida.
Trips by sea between Florida and Puerto Rico take several days (again, it's in a “very big ocean"). The fact that Rosselló projected it will take several months to return power to all of Puerto Rico is a testament to the scope of the damage on the island itself.
For one thing, damage to multiple pieces of infrastructure compound the difficulty of restoring any single one of them. Take what Hyland considers to be the second-biggest challenge to bring the grid online: communication between repair crews once they’re there.
In Puerto Rico, repair crews will be caught in a Catch-22. To assess damage and deploy crews, they need to communicate with each other across the island. But to communicate, they need cell or landline service that depends on power from the electric grid.
Only when repairmen are there and talking to each other does the real work begin. The damage itself could have been worse: Although PREPA’s power stations are old — their median age is more than 40 years — they sustained only “minor damage,” according to Gil C. Quiniones, president of the New York Power Authority.
“The power plants are pretty much intact,” said Quiniones, who visited the island. New York state sent more than 300 employees to Puerto Rico, including two drone pilots to assess damage to the grid from the air, to provide expertise to PREPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, which on Friday was designated the lead agency for rebuilding infrastructure there.
The issue, instead, is repairing downed wires among PREPA’s 2,478 miles of transmission lines and 31,485 miles of distribution lines. Those transmission lines emanate from power plants clustered along the island's southern coast through the mountainous, forested inland to the more populous northern part of Puerto Rico, including the capital, San Juan.
Puerto Rico's high-voltage transmission lines, which form backbone of the grid, "do go through very mountainous, highly vegetated areas," Hyland said.
That craggy geography, coupled with a road system that needs mending, is expected to impede the progress of electric repair crews, though according to Quiniones, “It’s nothing we haven’t done on the mainland.”
It’s the magnitude of the damage to Puerto Rico that will make the difference. As a stopgap, critical buildings, like hospitals and water-treatment facilities, will be powered by generators, which creates the additional logistical challenge of supplying them enough fuel to run.
“There is really a lot more damage than what you see on TV,” Quiniones said.
During his visit to the island, though, Trump was unwilling or unable to come to terms with the persistent power problem.
“Flashlights!” Trump said at a photo-up, holding one up to the crowd.
Then in an instant, Trump thought twice of the gesture and furrowed his brow. “You don’t need them anymore,” he said. “You don’t need them anymore.”
From NBC Nightly News's Micah Grimes:
"Flashlights! You don't need 'em anymore!" Pres. Trump says as he hands out flashlights at a Puerto Rico aid center. https://t.co/MwM8AjHH7x— Micah Grimes (@MicahGrimes) October 3, 2017
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-- LAS VEGAS SHOOTING UPDATE: Investigators are still trying to determine a motive behind the deadliest mass shooting in modern United States history. But on Tuesday, new details emerged about the meticulous plan that 64-year-old Stephen Paddock created before killing at least 59 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas.
Paddock fired for 9 to 11 minutes from his suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. He used video cameras around the room to keep an eye out for police. Authorities with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Tuesday that 12 of the guns recovered from his room had “bump fire” stocks, which enable semiautomatic weapons to fire almost as fast as fully automatic weapons. Prior to the shooting, Paddock wired $100,000 to someone in the Philippines. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said the shooting was “preplanned, extensively, and I’m pretty sure that he evaluated everything that he did in his actions, which is troublesome.”
The Post’s Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barett and Mark Berman note that while some public officials have suggested that Paddock was likely troubled, there were no immediate indications that he suffered from a mental illness or that he was not aware of his actions. The shooter’s girlfriend Marilou Danley arrived in the United States from the Philippines late Tuesday and was met at the airport by FBI agents. Investigators consider her a “person of interest” and hope, at the very least, she can shed light on Paddock's life.
As of Tuesday afternoon, authorities were able to identify all but three of the victims of the shooting. And here’s an updated look at what we know about the lives lost in Las Vegas.
-- A fuller picture: A Freedom of Information Act request from the legal watchdog American Oversight, reported first by the New York Times and also by The Washington Post, shows that Scott Pruitt’s first seven months as head of the EPA has included a number of meetings with industry executives that have “extended well beyond his Washington office,” as The Post's Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin write.
That Pruitt is meeting with industry executives is not news. The devil, at least as the EPA sees it (the agency called the NYT story an “attempt to sensationalize for clicks”), is in the details. They include:
- A meeting with Southern Company, one of the nation’s largest coal-burning electric utilities, at Equinox, a white-tablecloth favorite of Washington power brokers.
- Another meal with the board of directors of Alliance Resource Partners, a coal-mining giant whose chief executive donated nearly $2 million to help elect Trump, at BLT Prime, a steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
- A “speaking engagement” in Colorado Springs for the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. Because Pruitt was “invited to speak and present information on behalf of the agency,” his “acceptance of free attendance and any meals” at the event did not warrant financial disclosure, the newly released document says.
-- But soon Pruitt won't need to dine with business executives to know what they want: The EPA is requesting that oil drillers, miners and manufacturers weigh in on the best strategies for regulating their industries, launching a new program called “Smart Sectors” that the administration says will help “develop sensible approaches that better protect the environment and public health.”
The program will work with people from 13 sectors, including the agriculture, auto, chemical manufacturing, mining, oil and utilities industries, Bloomberg News reports. With the purpose of developing "sensible approaches that better protect the environment and public health," it's notable that "environmental advocates and public health experts" will not be allowed to participate in the program, according to Bloomberg.
-- The EPA missed a deadline to begin implementing a rule to limit ozone pollution. Pruitt needed to release initial findings on which areas of the country violated the new stricter ozone standards by Oct. 1, two years from when the Obama administration finalized the regulation, according to The Hill. But no such findings were released.
-- Jon Huntsman, recently confirmed as President Trump’s ambassador to Russia, has quit his post as a member of Chevron Corp.’s board. Huntsman cut his ties to the oil company on Sept. 28, Bloomberg News reports. (The Energy 202 wrote about Huntsman’s connection to Chevron in July.)
-- Relief for Puerto Rico: The White House is planning to ask Congress for $30 billion in new funding, a portion of which is aimed at helping recover from the recent spate of hurricanes, The Post’s Damian Paletta, Mike DeBonis and Ed O’Keefe report.. The request includes $12.77 billion in disaster recovery funds, $15 billion for the flood insurance program and $577 million for wildfires — the last an issue Western lawmakers felt was receiving too little attention given the Atlantic hurricanes.
Though Trump pledged a robust effort to help Puerto Rico's recovery, he also seemed to complain that funding for relief efforts took a chunk out of the federal government's budget: “Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
That was after the president said that Puerto Ricans should be "proud" their death toll wasn't higher like in a "real catastrophe" like 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
Those comments sparked a new wave of criticism from Democrats:
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.):
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) via The Post's Ed O'Keefe:
Schumer: "To have the gall to complain about Puerto Rico ... while proposing tax cuts for billionaires ... boggles the mind."— Ed O'Keefe (@edatpost) October 3, 2017
Schumer on Trump's comments re: #PuertoRico's & the budget: "Mr. President, enough. Stop blaming Puerto Rico ..."— Ed O'Keefe (@edatpost) October 3, 2017
"...for the storm that devastated their shores. Roll up your sleeves and get the response on track." (2/2)— Ed O'Keefe (@edatpost) October 3, 2017
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.):
President Trump's bizarre behavior in Puerto Rico is more than cringeworthy. It reflects a lack of empathy & urgency that is deadly serious.— Mark Takano (@RepMarkTakano) October 3, 2017
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.):
Further signs of unpresidential behavior: Telling hurricane victims flooded out of the homes to "Have a good time!" https://t.co/vaZwxB53eu— Jackie Speier (@RepSpeier) October 3, 2017
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
Really? People are dying in Puerto Rico and in dire need, yet this is what the President has to say while he pushes tax cuts for top 1%. https://t.co/C9IVLK4zYx— Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) October 3, 2017
And a jab from former Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.):
-- A few by-the-numbers updates in Puerto Rico:
The official death toll from Maria has increased to 34 people, the governor announced Tuesday.
A member of the Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico told CNN that 189 commercial bank branches and credit unions were operational; one-third of those locations are in or near San Juan. Some merchants cannot accept credit cards because the power is still out. And drivers aren’t available to distribute cash.
As of Monday, 88 percent of cellphone service sites were out of service, per CNN.
40 percent of people on the island have WiFi or wired Internet access.
Rosselló said Monday that wait times to get gas are now under an hour, per Politico.
-- Another opportunity for Trump to make good on his coal promises: West Virginia's two senators, Joe Manchin (D) and Shelley Moore Capito (R), introduced legislation on Tuesday to buttress the pension fund of the United Mine Workers of America.
The issue: A spate of coal-company bankruptcies has reduced the flow of money into the pension fund, imperiling the livelihood of retired miners should the retirement program become insolvent. The new legislation would move money from a fund for reclaiming abandoned coal mines into the pension fund.
The politics: Representatives from Western coal states, with coal producers that pay into the abandoned-mine fund, will likely object to the bill. But Manchin, a Democrat who represents a state Trump won by nearly 42 points who faces a tough reelection contest in 2018, has shown a willing to disrupt the Senate in service to this cause. In December, Manchin threatened to filibuster a spending bill if Congress didn't extend a health-care program for miners. Congress eventually made that health care fix in May.
-- Uncertainty about cone of uncertainty: The National Hurricane Center had predicted that Hurricane Irma would hit Miami. Instead, it suddenly turned. “How can a forecast be exceptionally accurate and wrong at the same time?,” asks Bryan Norcross, senior hurricane specialist at the Weather Channel, in a post for our Capital Weather Gang.
Norcross argues that the center needs to reassess how it communicates its forecasts. Regarding the so-called "cone of certainty" (a graphic that illustrates the best guess of forecasters as to where the hurricane will end up), he writes:
There are no words that could have been spoken or written to convince any reasonable person looking at that graphic that the NHC was not forecasting Hurricane Irma to hit Miami. There’s a big giant M right over the city. If you read the fine print (which nobody does), you’d see that an M means extra bad. (The M actually stands for “major” hurricane, meaning Category 3 or above, which is a terrible label since it wouldn’t apply to hurricanes Ike or Sandy.)
The intended NHC message is a much broader statement about the threat to the entire southern part of the peninsula. Any whiff of that notion is lost, however, in the noise created by the extra-bad M over the most glitzy and glamorous city on the hurricane coast.
-- Toxic? Potentially harmful algae blooms covered more than 700 square miles in Lake Erie last week, the New York Times reports. The cyanobacteria blooms can produce water-contaminating toxins that could affect the local ecosystem — not to mention the drinking water of nearly 3 million people that rely on Lake Erie for it. Testing levels reveal that the toxin levels are low, but the Times reports that in general, the algae blooms have gotten worse since the 2000's.
The House Natural Resources Committee holds a legislative hearing.
The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup.
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing on Michael Dourson, Matthew Leopold, David Ross, and William Wehrum to be assistant administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Jeffery Baran to be a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The 2017 Conservative Clean Energy Summit is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.
The Environmental Law Institute holds an event on “How Agencies Reverse Policy” on Thursday.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on “Consumer-oriented perspectives on improving the nation’s electricity markets” on Thursday.
President Trump says recovery efforts in Puerto Rico are ‘nothing short of a miracle:’
President Trump's visit to Puerto Rico, in two minutes:
Maria survivor calls President Trump 'a disaster' and reflects on his response to Puerto Rico:
President Trump on the Puerto Rican mayor: 'It's now acknowledged what a great job we've done:'
Food truck cooks free meals for hospital staff in Las Vegas:
Jimmy Kimmel says it's not too soon to talk about gun violence:
Watch Stephen Colbert react to President Trump's visit to Puerto Rico: