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So much of the news coverage about restoring power to Puerto Rico concerns a tiny town more than 3,000 miles away from the hurricane-hit island.
Whitefish, Mont. — population: 7,279 — is home to Whitefish Energy, a company that had just two employees on the day Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. Somehow, that tiny company won a $300 million, non-competitive contract with the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
After a chorus of criticism from government contracting experts and members of Congress, PREPA moved to cancel the contract on Sunday. Now, 40 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he would make mutual aid requests from New York and Florida.
Like in many small town, Whitefish residents know each other — a truism that includes Whitefish chief executive Andrew Techmanski and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Zinke's son had worked at Whitefish last summer. In a local television interview, Techmanski said he was in touch with Zinke after the contract was awarded in order to try to free up more resources.
It's that small-town connection that first drew scrutiny. But even if a son's summertime job is where the interior secretary's involvement with Whitefish begins and ends, there are other fishy things about the now-cancelled contract. Consider what The Post has reported so far:
- At $462 an hour for a foreman and $319.04 an hour for a lineman, Whitefish’s pay scales appear to be higher than competitors. In contrast, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is contracting out its own work repairing electric lines, has been offering to pay firms as much as $195.04 an hour for a journeyman lineman and $230.32 an hour for a general foreman, The Post's Steven Mufson, Arelis R. Hernández and Aaron C. Davis report.
- Techmanski’s wife, Amanda, was listed as one of Whitefish's two managers despite saying on Facebook that she just started a new job as a nurse practitioner. In July, Whitefish qualified as an “economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business” in another contract with the Energy Department.
- And the coup de grâce: A highly unusual clause in the contract stating that pay rates and other terms could not be audited or reviewed by Federal Emergency Management Agency; the island's government; the comptroller general; or PREPA.
The Trump administration denied any wrongdoing with regard to Whitefish. It very well could be telling the truth. Even so, distancing itself from the Whitefish fiasco does very little to solve the administration's fundamental problem with Puerto Rico.
Zinke struck a defiant, Trump-like tone with reporters asking if he had anything to do with the contract. "Any attempts by the dishonest media or political operatives to tie me to awarding of influencing any contract involving Whitefish are completely baseless," Zinke wrote in a statement. "Only in elitist Washington, D.C., would being from a small town be considered a crime." The White House, too, said it had nothing to do with the contract PREPA awarded.
I had absolutely nothing to do with Whitefish Energy receiving a contract in Puerto Rico. I welcome all investigations into the allegations pic.twitter.com/JQgVFR7Fp6— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) October 27, 2017
Indeed, granting the contract to Whitefish was ultimately the decision of Puerto Rico's electric utility. But nearly six weeks after the storm, most of the island is still without power. Even the most conservative members of Congress regard disaster relief as primarily the responsibility of the federal government. As long as much of the island remains dark, Puerto Rico is fundamentally Trump's problem.
As it stands, only 38 percent of Americans approve of Trump's job performance, according to a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll published over the weekend. Among the issues weighing down Trump's approval rating the most — health care, the Iran nuclear deal, Puerto Rico and the NFL protests— it is the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that remains the furthest from Trump's control.
But taking responsibility for events outside of their control is exactly what presidents have to do.
Aside from the series of hurricanes, so far Trump has faced few tests not of his own making. As Trump likes to point out on Twitter, the unemployment rate has been low and GDP growth has been high during his tenure, even though ebbs and flows of those economic indicators are not solely linked to the government's actions.
How the Trump administration has handled Puerto Rico and Whitefish — seeking credit for the recovery while deflecting blame, even when unwarranted — is potentially a prelude for how the president will handle even bigger external emergencies.
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BREAKING: Paul Manafort, and his former business associate, Rick Gates, have been told to surrender to federal authorities, per the Post's Roz Helderman and Matt Zapotosky. "The precise charges the men face were not immediately clear ... Prosecutors have been probing Manafort’s work as a political consultant in Ukraine, where he advised a Russia-friendly political party for years before his work with Trump. They have also been examining Manafort’s personal finances."
-- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) visited Puerto Rico late last week as part of one of the latest groups to tour the storm- ravaged areas.
Sanders tweeted about his trip:
The level of destruction in Puerto Rico is unprecedented. Rebuilding will require significant resources over a long period of time. pic.twitter.com/foSBPixYEM— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) October 27, 2017
Today I am in Puerto Rico to talk with families and local government representatives about the destruction they are dealing with. pic.twitter.com/CHPidDPh84— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) October 27, 2017
In other key developments:
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has begun drawing up plans to provide housing for displaced hurricane victims, Bloomberg reports, and some residents may be evacuated to the U.S. mainland.
BuzzFeed News reported the Puerto Rican government said it authorized more than 900 bodies to be cremated following the storm and “not one of them were physically examined by a government medical examiner to determine if it should be included in the official death toll.” A government spokesman told the website that all of the 911 people died of “natural causes.”
The Post's Philip Bump reminds us we may never know Maria’s full toll: “The question that arises is whether or not that total is abnormally high. If 911 is a lot of deaths for a normal month in Puerto Rico, it may indicate that some hurricane-related deaths are not being counted as such.”
Nearly three dozen Democrats have signed a letter to FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers calling on them to hasten efforts to restore power to the island. "We are particularly concerned with the lack of a unified command for electrical grid restoration to ensure that resources are properly and quickly utilized, that specific tasks are appropriately prioritized, and that efforts are not duplicative," the senators wrote in the letter, per The Hill.
Democratic senators to Trump: Don't forget about the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra, which like the territory's big island were hit hard by the hurricane. For more on the situation in Vieques, read this late September report from The Post's Amy Gordon.
From MSNBC's Kyle Griffin:
Democratic senators want the Trump admin to prioritize assistance to the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra and deploy EPA staff. pic.twitter.com/ko0vXslfCD— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 30, 2017
-- No Katrina redux: Following Hurricane Harvey in Houston, FEMA director Brock Long cautioned against bringing in mobile homes to serve as temporary housing for storm victims after widespread criticism following the use of such homes after Hurricane Katrina.
Long called it a “last resort" plan. Still, report The Post's Kimberly Kindy and Aaron C. Davis, FEMA spent $300 million on mobile homes following Harvey and readied 1,700 mobile homes in its inventory.
“Yet most of those homes remain warehoused. FEMA has made the hunt for permanent rental housing its top priority and is reluctant to deploy the notorious homes and trailers,” Kindy and Davis report. “That decision is crippling recovery efforts in states where thousands of people remain in shelters and hotels more than six weeks after massive hurricanes destroyed their homes. Now in Texas and Florida — where rental stock is inadequate — state officials are cranking up the pressure on FEMA to release the mobile units.”
-- Earmarked: Trump told Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) late last week that he plans to shrink the state’s Bears Ears National Monument.
“I’m approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin,” Trump told the senator in a phone call Friday morning, reported The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears.
Trump plans to visit Utah in early December before he makes adjustments to monuments in the state. The Washington Examiner reported that Hatch said Friday the president plans to change both Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both part of Interior Secretary Zinke’s recommendations following a months-long review.
-- 372 days until the midterm election: The League of Conservation Voters made a $300,000 ad buy for one Democratic senator up for reelection in 2018, Tammy Baldwin, about an issue that resonates in Wisconsin: Asian carp.
-- Citgo situation: The New York Times has a front-page story about Russia wielding one of its state-owned oil companies as a tool for gaining influence abroad. The paper's Clifford Krauss writes: "Moscow, through the state oil giant Rosneft, is trying to build influence in places where the United States has stumbled or power is up for grabs." This includes Venezuela, which is increasingly turning to Russia for cash and credit. Last year, Rosneft took a 49.9 percent stake Venezuela's state-run refining subsidiary in the United States, Citgo, over objections from members of Congress. Rosneft is now seeking stakes in Venezuelas oil fields — right in the backyard of the United States."
-- Drip, drip: After more than 670,000 gallons of oil spilled from a fractured pipe about a mile below the ocean’s surface in the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, La., it was hardly visible. It was the largest spill since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. But the New York Times reports that “in this case, the oil degraded quickly, in part because of environmental forces.”
Lt. Cmdr. Steven Youde of the Coast Guard told the Times that most of the oil drops that leaked from a fractured pipe, which was pressurized to more than 3,000 pounds per square inch, were so small they measured in microns.
“Think of a soda can or a beer can,” he told the Times. “If you shake it up and poke a tiny hole in it, it comes out in tiny, tiny droplets.”
-- What's next for California? As Northern California recovers from major wildfires, state officials are worried about other natural disasters, reports The Post's Tim Craig. “Sacramento is more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding than any other major city in the United States except New Orleans,” Craig writes. “Levees and other flood defenses here and in the surrounding Central Valley have amassed up to $21 billion in needed repairs and upgrades, while Sacramento’s population has continued to grow. Just days before Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas and flooded Houston, a report from the California Department of Water Resources warned that ‘many flood facilities’ in the Central Valley ‘face an unacceptably high chance of failure.’”
-- Five years after Sandy: Victims of Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey are warning victims of the harrowing 2017 hurricane season to be patient. “People told me it would be five years before we’re back together. I thought, you gotta be kidding me. I’ll be back by Christmas,” a 69-year-old resident of Brigantine, N.J. told CNN. Well, it’ll be five years in October and we’re not 100% yet.”
The New York Times reflected on the storm that made landfall on October 29, 2012. “Each year we don’t get a hurricane here we know we’ve dodged a bullet,” Robert Freudenberg, the vice president for energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association told the Times. “We’re racing the clock still to try and prepare for another storm like Sandy.”
- Resources for the Future holds an event.
- George Washington’s Environmental and Energy Management Institute holds a workshop on carbon dioxide removal/negative emissions.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on “new efficiency opportunities provided by advanced building management and control systems” on Tuesday.
- The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event to “unpack the proposed grid reliability and resiliency pricing rule under consideration at FERC” on Tuesday.
- The House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations holds a hearing on “Examining the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program” on Wednesday.
- The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute holds an event on developing low carbon economies in Latin America on Wednesday.
- Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies holds an event on energy efficiency in emerging markets on Wednesday.
- The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of low dose radiation research on Wednesday.
- The National Economists Club holds an event with the American Chemistry Council’s chief economist Kevin Swift on Thursday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on a review of emergency response and infrastructure recovery following the hurricane season on Thursday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing on three water bills on Thursday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to receive testimony on potential for oil and gas exploration in the non-wilderness portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday.
- The Ripon Society holds an event on the Future of Puerto Rico on Thursday.
- Axios and NBC News holds an event with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) on Thursday.
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