Associated Press, Author at Florida Politics

Associated Press

Senate passes $36.5B disaster aid bill; Donald Trump signature next

The Senate passed a $36.5 billion emergency aid measure Tuesday to refill disaster accounts, provide a much-needed cash infusion to Puerto Rico, and bail out the federal flood insurance program.

The 82-17 vote sends the measure to the White House, where President Donald Trump is sure to sign it.

The measure provides $18.7 billion to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rapidly dwindling accounts, and $16 billion so the flood insurance program can keep paying claims.

It brings the total approved by Congress during this fall’s hurricane season to more than $50 billion — and that’s before requests expected soon to cover damage to water and navigation projects, crops, public buildings and infrastructure, and to help homeowners without flood insurance rebuild.

“We’re still waiting for all the data to come in from Texas to determine what the need is,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, whose Gulf Coast district was slammed by Hurricane Harvey. “We’ve already done the supplementals to keep the agencies going, but the long-term stuff — public assistance, FEMA and housing — are the big questions. We still haven’t gotten all the numbers in from the state.”

The measure fails to address demands from the Florida and Texas delegations for more funding now, but lawmakers representing those states have won assurances from GOP leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and Trump himself that more help is in the works.

“I want to stress that much, much more will be needed in my state,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. “It’s not over and done with, and it’s not time to just move on.”

The current measure would permit FEMA to allocate up to $5 billion to assist Puerto Rico’s central government and various municipalities through a cash crisis. Maria has largely shut down the island’s economy and choked off tax revenues. The island’s electric grid has been mostly destroyed and more than one-fourth of Puerto Rico’s residents don’t have potable running water.

Some conservatives, however, are becoming uneasy with the steadily growing cost of this year’s spate of hurricanes.

“People here will say they have great compassion and want to help the people of Puerto Rico and the people of Texas and the people of Florida,” said Sen. Rand Paul, a Texas Republican. “It is compassion with money that doesn’t exist, money that’s borrowed.”

But Republicans controlling Washington are proving more willing to send aid to Texas and Florida this year than they were with New York and New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy hit those states — which are strongly Democratic — five years ago. And just last year, Republicans held up funding sought by President Barack Obama to combat the threat of the Zika virus and to help Flint, Michigan, repair its lead-tainted water system.

Now the challenge is whether Puerto Rico, which sustained enormous damage after Hurricane Maria’s landfall more than a month ago, will get enough aid to rebuild.

Trump tweeted earlier this month that the federal government can’t keep sending help to Puerto Rico “forever” and suggested that the U.S. territory was to blame for its financial struggles.

“You’ve got over 1,000 communities that haven’t had any assistance,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican. He said Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory whose people are American citizens, can “absolutely” count on Washington to treat the island as an equal to Texas and Florida.

There’s also unrest among opponents of the heavily subsidized federal flood insurance program, which many lawmakers say is in need of reform.

The federal flood insurance program, said Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, “encourages thousands of Americans to live in some of the most dangerous real estate in the country.”

How to counter Donald Trump? Democrats still searching

Nine months into the Donald Trump era, Democrats are still searching for a standard-bearer and a crisp message to corral widespread opposition to an unpopular president and a Republican-led Congress.

The minority party has put that struggle on vivid display this week in Nevada, site of Democrats’ first national party gathering since a contentious chairman’s election in February. The party’s congressional leaders and potential presidential candidates mostly stayed away, with the exception of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose name has surfaced among possible 2020 hopefuls.

The activists and party leaders who did attend expressed optimism over their rebuilding efforts, but also lingering resentments from the 2016 presidential primary, confirming that the battle between liberals and establishment Democrats continues long after Hillary Clinton dispatched Bernie Sanders but lost to Trump.

The months since the election have brought plenty of frank public assessments about how far the Democratic National Committee has to go to catch up to Republicans on fundraising and technology — twin pillars of how a national party helps its candidates win elections across the country.

The lingering debate was enough for party Chairman Tom Perez, still putting his stamp on the party, to warn that the discord distracts from laying the groundwork for the 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential contest.

“This is a Rome-is-burning moment,” he said Friday, his summation of Trump’s presidency so far. “We may be playing different instruments, but we are all in the same orchestra. We need more people in that orchestra.”

Democrats need to flip at least 24 GOP-held seats next November to reclaim the House. Republicans hold a narrow 52-48 Senate advantage, but Democrats must defend 10 incumbents in states Trump won. In statehouses, Democrats have just 15 governors, and Republicans control about two-thirds of legislatures.

Democrats hope to hold the Virginia governorship and pick up New Jersey’s next month. The party is tantalized by an Alabama Senate race pitting the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, against former jurist Roy Moore, a controversial figure who wasn’t the GOP establishment’s first choice.

Perez is selling confidence. “We’ve got game,” he roared to an exuberant audience at one reception.

Behind that hope, there are plenty of reasons for caution, mostly rooted in an uncomfortable reality: No Democrat has emerged as a leader and top rival to Trump in 2020, with a line-up of previous candidates like Joe Biden and Sanders and little-known House and Senate lawmakers.

Rep. Keith Ellison, Perez’s deputy who hails from the party’s left flank, pushed back against any notion that the Democrats don’t have a clear leader.

“We are not a leaderless party. We are a leader-full party. We have Tom Perez. We have Keith Ellison. We have Leader Pelosi. We have Leader Schumer,” he said.

Still, that reliance on Capitol Hill means the party is touting a leadership core much older than the electorate. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is 77. Sanders is 76. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is 66. Other national figures, Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are in the same generation.

“You will see a new generation out there — good messengers with the right message,” said Henry Munoz, the party’s finance chairman, though he declined to speculate about individual names.

A prominent DNC member who backed Clinton in 2016 tried to convince Democrats on Friday to call on Sanders to join the party. “The first word in DNC is ’Democratic,’” quipped Bob Mulholland. But the party’s Resolution Committee, led by Sanders backer James Zobgy, jettisoned the idea. Zogby said taking a shot at Sanders would “feed a Twitter debate that will not be helpful in bringing together” voters on the left.

Trump’s approval ratings are mired in the 30s, levels that history says should spell scores of lost Republican House seats next year. Yet Trump has never had consistent majority public support. Democrats also face an uphill path because Republican state lawmakers drew a majority of congressional districts to the GOP’s advantage.

Trump’s election has sparked an outpouring of volunteer energy and cash on the political left, but the money hasn’t flowed to the national party. Munoz, who helped former President Barack Obama haul in record-setting sums, says the DNC has taken in $51.5 million this year, compared with $93.3 million for Republicans.

Party treasurer Bill Derrough acknowledged that he’s found frustrated Democratic boosters asking about “a damaged brand, what are we doing, what do we stand for.”

The party’s “Better Deal” rollout earlier this year — a package of proposals intended to serve as the economic message to counter Trump’s populist nationalism — hasn’t been an obvious feature at Democrats’ national meeting at all.

Perez is seeking to inject younger blood into the party leadership structure with his 75 at-large appointments to the DNC. But his appointments meant ousting some older DNC members, including Babs Siperstein. The New York at-large member whom Perez did not reappoint warned her fellow Democrats not to underestimate the fellow New Yorker in the White House — Trump.

“He may be weird. He may be narcissistic. But he’s not stupid,” Siperstein said. “He’s smart enough to get elected. He’s smart enough to get away with everything. … So we have to stay united.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Democratic chairman: Donald Trump ‘most dangerous’ president ever

Trying to quell accusations that he is ousting activists from the party’s left flank, Democratic Chairman Tom Perez told fellow Democrats on Saturday that unity is crucial in the fight against President Donald Trump, whom he lambasted as an “existential threat” to the nation.

“We have the most dangerous president in American history and one of the most reactionary Congresses in American history,” Perez said as he addressed the first Democratic National Committee gathering since his February election.

The former Obama Cabinet official blistered “a culture of corruption” that he said extends to Trump’s Cabinet, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but he warned that internal ruckuses over party priorities and leadership would distract from the goal of winning more elections to upend Republicans’ domination in Washington.

The chairman’s plea comes amid a rift over his appointments to little-known but influential party committees and the 75 at-large members of the national party committee. Perez and his aides plug his choices as a way to make the DNC younger and more diverse, but the moves also mean demotions for several prominent Democrats who backed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primaries and then supported Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison over Perez in the postelection race for party chairman.

Perez spent time during this week’s proceedings meeting privately with frustrated DNC members, including some he did not reappoint. He apologized publicly Saturday for not reaching all of those members before he announced his appointments, but he defended his overall aim.

“If someone ever asks you which wing of the party you belong to, tell ’em you belong to the accomplishment wing of the Democratic Party,” he said, “because you’re trying to get s— done. That’s what we’re trying to do here, folks. We’re trying to move the ball forward.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have exalted in the internal wrangle, painting the DNC as incompetently discordant.

“The Democratic Party’s message of doom and gloom has left them leaderless and nearly extinct in most of the country,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens said. “If Tom Perez wants his party to stick with that same failed strategy, Republicans will gladly keep working to help the middle class by cutting their taxes and fixing our broken health care system.”

To some extent, the Democrats’ developments reflect routine party politics after an unusually contentious chairman’s race, but they also fit into the ongoing philosophical tussle on the left.

Sanders’ backers accused the DNC in 2016 of stacking the nominating process in Clinton’s favor and shutting out the Vermont independent who still seeks to pull the party toward his ideology. Those frustrations carried over into the DNC chair race between Perez, the former labor secretary, and Ellison.

Now, Perez’s appointees will hold sway over setting the primary calendar in 2020 and, perhaps most importantly, whether the party’s superdelegates, including the 75 at-large members, will continue to cast presidential nominating votes at Democratic conventions without being bound to any state primary or caucus results.

Democrats are looking next month to hold the Virginia governor’s seat and wrest the New Jersey governor’s seat from Republican control. Next year, Democrats need to flip at least 24 Republican congressional seats to regain control of the House. They face an uphill battle in gaining control of the Senate, because they must defend 10 incumbents in states Trump won last November. Democrats also want to increase their gubernatorial roster from the current 15 state executives.

Separately, former Attorney General Eric Holder urged the party to play the long game necessary to overcome Republican advantages scored when GOP-run legislatures drew congressional and legislative districts around the country after the 2010 census.

Holder leads a political action group, with fundraising support for former President Barack Obama, to back candidates in states where gerrymandering gives Democrats an uphill path to majorities. He singled out Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia and Texas, among other states, where Republicans “picked their voters” with districts that “are impressive in their geographic creativity but they are destructive to representative democracy.”

The Supreme Court earlier this month heard oral arguments in a case challenging the Wisconsin districts. Legal analysts expect Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the court’s swing vote, will decide whether the court for the first time declares partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Former presidents call for unity at hurricane aid concert

The five living former presidents put aside politics and appeared together for the first time since 2013 at a concert on Saturday to raise money for victims of devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Democrats Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and Republicans George H.W. and George W. Bush gathered in College Station, Texas, home of Texas A&M University, to try to unite the country after the storms.

Texas A&M is home to the presidential library of the elder Bush. At 93, he has a form of Parkinson’s disease and appeared in a wheelchair at the event. His wife, Barbara, and George W. Bush’s wife, Laura, were in the audience.

Grammy award winner Lady Gaga made a surprise appearance at the concert that also featured country music band Alabama, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer ‘Soul Man’ Sam Moore, gospel legend Yolanda Adams and Texas musicians Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen.

The appeal backed by the ex-presidents has raised $31 million since it began on Sept. 7, said Jim McGrath, spokesman for George H.W. Bush.

President Donald Trump offered a video greeting that avoided his past criticism of the former presidents and called them “some of America’s finest public servants.”

“This wonderful effort reminds us that we truly are one nation under God, all unified by our values and devotion to one another,” Trump said in the greeting, played during the concert.

Four of the five former presidents — Obama, George W. Bush, Carter and Clinton — made brief remarks that did not mention Trump. The elder Bush did not speak but smiled and waved to the crowd. They appealed for national unity to help those hurt by the hurricanes.

“The heart of America, without regard to race or religion or political party, is greater than our problems,” said Clinton.

The last time the five were together was in 2013, when Obama was still in office, at the dedication of George W. Bush’s presidential library in Dallas.

There is precedent for former presidents joining forces for post-disaster fundraising. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton raised money together after the 2004 South Asia tsunami and Hurricane Katrina the next year. Clinton and George W. Bush combined to seek donations after Haiti’s 2011 earthquake.

“It’s certainly a triple, if not a home run, every time,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Presidents have the most powerful and prolific fundraising base of any politician in the world. When they send out a call for help, especially on something that’s not political, they can rake in big money.”

Amid criticism that his administration was initially slow to aid ravaged Puerto Rico, Trump accused island leaders of “poor leadership,” and later tweeted that, “Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes” while saying that Federal Emergency Management Agency, first-responders and military personnel wouldn’t be able to stay there forever.

But Rottinghaus said ex-presidents are seen as less polarizing than the current president.

“They can’t get away from the politics of the moment,” he said of current White House occupants. “Ex-presidents are able to step back and be seen as the nation’s grandfather.”

Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25, unleashing historic flooding in Houston and killing more than 80 people. Shortly thereafter, all five ex-presidents appeared in a commercial for a fundraising effort known as “One America Appeal.” In it, George W. Bush says, “People are hurting down here.” His father, George H.W. Bush, then replies, “We love you, Texas.”

Hurricane Irma subsequently hit Florida and Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, while both devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A website accepting donations, OneAmericaAppeal.org, was created with 100 percent of proceeds pledged to hurricane relief.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Volunteer Florida gave large bonus to former CEO Chester Spellman

The former head of Florida’s volunteer agency got a hefty bonus of more than $12,000 shortly before he left to take a job in the administration of President Donald Trump.

Chester Spellman, the chief executive officer of Volunteer Florida, got the bonus in July. In August, Spellman was appointed director of AmeriCorps.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Spellman as Volunteer Florida CEO in 2012. The governor on Friday sent a letter to Volunteer Florida officials that asked them to stop handing out bonuses.

Volunteer Florida administers more than $32 million in federal, state and local volunteer programs.

Scott said that while he believes in “fair compensation,” he does not support bonuses.

Records from Volunteer Florida show the organization paid nearly $33,000 in employee bonuses in 2016 and nearly $16,000 in 2015.

Trump jabs back at ‘wacky’ congresswoman as spat rolls on

Unwilling to put the tussling behind, President Donald Trump on Saturday jabbed back at the Democratic lawmaker who has slammed him for his words of condolence to a military widow, calling Rep. Frederica Wilson “wacky” and contending she is “killing” her party.

Trump’s broadside came a day after the White House defended chief of staff John Kelly after he mischaracterized Wilson’s remarks and called her an “empty barrel” making noise. A Trump spokeswoman said it was “inappropriate” to question Kelly in light of his stature as a retired four-star general.

The fight between Trump and the Miami-area Democrat began Tuesday said Trump told the pregnant widow of a service member killed in the African nation of Niger that her 25-year-old husband “knew what he signed up for.” Wilson was riding with the family of family of Sgt. La David Johnson to meet the body and heard the call on speakerphone.

The administration has attempted to insist that it’s long past time to end the political squabbling over Trump’s compassion for America’s war dead.

But Trump added to the volley of insults with his tweet on Saturday morning: “I hope the Fake News Media keeps talking about Wacky Congresswoman Wilson in that she, as a representative, is killing the Democrat Party!” That came after she had added a new element by suggesting a racial context.

His tweet came hours before mourners were to attend Johnson’s funeral in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Kelly asserted that the congresswoman had delivered a 2015 speech at an FBI field office dedication in which she “talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building,” rather than keeping the focus on the fallen agents for which it was named. Video of the speech contradicted his recollection.

Wilson, in an interview Friday with The New York Times, brought race into the dispute.

“The White House itself is full of white supremacists,” said Wilson, who is black, as is the Florida family Trump had called in a condolence effort this week that led to the back-and-forth name calling.

Trump, in an interview with Fox Business Network, then called Wilson’s criticism of Kelly “sickening.” He also said he had had a “very nice call,” with the late sergeant’s family.

The spat started when Wilson told reporters that Trump had insulted the family of Johnson, who was killed two weeks ago in Niger. She was fabricating that, Trump said. The soldier’s widow and aunt said no, it was the president who was fibbing.

Then Kelly strode out in the White House briefing room on Thursday, backing up the president and suggesting Wilson was just grandstanding – as he said she had at the FBI dedication in 2015.

After news accounts took issue with part of that last accusation, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders chastised reporters for questioning the account of a decorated general.

“If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you,” she said. “But I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”

Video of the FBI office dedication in Miami, from the archives of South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, shows that Wilson never mentioned the building’s funding, though she did recount at length her efforts to help name the building in honor of the special agents.

That did nothing to deter Sanders, who said “If you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”

Sanders also used a dismissive Southwest rancher’s term, calling Wilson, who often wears elaborate hats, “all hat and no cattle.”

Wilson was in the car with the family of Johnson, who died in an Oct. 4 ambush that killed four American soldiers in Niger, when Trump called to express his condolences on Tuesday. She said in an interview that Trump had told Johnson’s widow that “you know that this could happen when you signed up for it … but it still hurts.” Johnson’s aunt, who raised the soldier from a young age, said the family took that remark to be disrespectful.

The Defense Department is investigating the details of the Niger ambush, in which Islamic militants on motorcycles brought rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, killing the four and wounding others. The FBI said it is assisting, as it has in the past when American citizens are killed overseas.

Sanders said Friday that if the “spirit” in which Trump’s comments “were intended were misunderstood, that’s very unfortunate.”

Senate withholding secret emails linked to website

The Florida Senate is refusing to turn over dozens of emails involving a state budget website that was shuttered despite taxpayers paying $5 million for it so far.

The contractor that built the website has sued the Senate for a final payment of $500,000. While the case moves along, attorneys for both sides are arguing over what information should be turned over in the case.

Attorneys representing the Senate are withholding more than 50 emails sent between Senate employees, as well as some Republican senators.

The emails deal with a website that was supposed to help the public understand the state budget. Legislative officials say it didn’t work as intended and never went online.

In court filings this month, Senate attorneys contend the emails are privileged information or work product.

Richard Spencer undeterred by boos on latest college stop

The hostile audience drowned out white nationalist Richard Spencer with anti-Nazi chants. They booed him off the stage under the watchful eye of police officers in riot gear.

In other words, Spencer sees his speech Thursday at the University of Florida as a smashing success.

“I’m very happy with what happened in the sense of the (public relations) victory,” he told The Associated Press on Friday. “But at the same time, it’s a little frustrating and a little sad that I wasn’t able to talk to people.”

Once an obscure figure in a fringe movement, Spencer has become a household name thanks in part to his infamous “Hail Trump!” toast, a videotaped punch to his head and the bloodshed at a Virginia rally where he was a headliner.

But his notoriety, amplified by social media and mainstream news coverage, far exceeds his modest following of tiki torch-bearing racists and anti-Semites.

Protesters vastly outnumbered Spencer’s supporters at the University of Florida on Thursday, his first campus appearance since the deadly clash at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. A woman was struck and killed by a car that plowed into a crowd of counter protesters after authorities broke up the “Unite the Right” rally.

In Florida, police flooded Gainesville after the governor declared a state of emergency ahead of Spencer’s event.

Facing a massive backlash after the Charlottesville violence, Spencer and other leading figures in the “alt-right” movement have portrayed themselves as champions of free speech and victims of political correctness. Over the past six months, Spencer’s supporters have sued three universities for refusing to let him speak there. A lawyer aligned with Spencer has threatened to sue others.

Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said campus speeches are a “tried-and-true tactic to get attention” for Spencer and other far-right figures.

“He’s choosing the places that will elicit a visceral reaction, perhaps some sort of legal battle. And he embraces that because he knows it’s going to underscore his ideology,” Segal said.

Spencer popularized the term “alt-right” to describe a movement that’s a loosely connected mix of racism, white nationalism and anti-immigration views. He has advocated for an “ethno-state” that would be a “safe space” for white people.\

Last November, after Donald Trump’s election, Spencer hosted a conference in Washington that ended with audience members mimicking Nazi salutes after Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”

In January, Spencer was in Washington for Trump’s inauguration when a masked man punched him in the head during a videotaped interview, footage that quickly spread on the internet.

Buoyed by a wave of publicity, Spencer announced plans for a college tour earlier this year. Spencer said he thought the tour would be “easy” and he could simply “call people up and I would come and speak to students.”

“There are roadblocks at every place along the way,” he said Thursday.

In April, Auburn University tried to cancel his speech, but a federal judge ruled in Spencer’s favor after a lawyer sued the school on behalf of Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who booked a room for Spencer.

More recently, Padgett and another surrogate tried to book events for Spencer at Ohio State University, Michigan State University, Penn State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Cincinnati and Louisiana State University. So far, only the University of Florida and the University of Cincinnati agreed to let him speak.

LSU President F. King Alexander cited the Charlottesville violence in explaining why Spencer wasn’t welcome.

“LSU is not changing policies but rather following the law, which allows us to protect our students from imminent threats of violence,” Alexander said in a statement over the summer.

Spencer’s allies recently sued Michigan State and Penn State in federal courts, accusing them of violating Spencer’s First Amendment rights.

Michigan-based attorney Kyle Bristow, who helped draft the lawsuits, said they don’t want to become “First Amendment martyrs” but feel unfairly targeted after Charlottesville. He pointed to the takedown of The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that has struggled to stay online since it mocked the woman killed in the car attack.

“Once Charlottesville happened, corporate America and the government began to crack down on the alt-right,” Bristow said. “The First Amendment isn’t changed because of one protest or one rally. Everybody has a right to exercise free speech.”

Hurricanes, earthquakes estimated to cost insurers $95B

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as two recent earthquakes in Mexico likely cost the insurance industry about $95 billion, said Swiss Re, one of the world’s biggest reinsurers.

The Zurich-based company, which as a reinsurer provides backup policies to companies that write primary insurance policies, said Friday that the claims process is ongoing and estimates could evolve.

Swiss Re expects its own payouts linked to the natural disasters will be about $3.6 billion, including $175 million for the Mexico earthquakes alone.

A company statement didn’t break down the costs by hurricane. In an e-mail, Swiss Re’s vice president for communications, Willy-Andreas Heckmann, said the company would provide further details with its third-quarter results report next week.

CEO Christian Mumenthaler called the catastrophes “extremely powerful” and said Swiss Re “can support our clients when they need us most.”

Reinsurance, a sort of insurance for insurers, helps spread risk so that the system can handle large losses from natural disasters.

What Puerto Rico is doing to get the power back after the storm

Electrical linemen descend from helicopters, balancing on steel girders 90 feet high on transmission towers in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, far from any road.

At the same time, crews fan out across the battered island, erecting light poles and power lines in a block by block slog.

A month after Hurricane Maria rolled across the center of Puerto Rico, the power is still out for the vast majority of people on the island as the work to restore hundreds of miles of transmission lines and thousands of miles of distribution lines grinds on for crews toiling under a blazing tropical sun.

And it won’t get done soon without more workers, more equipment and more money, according to everyone involved in the effort.

“It’s too much for us alone,” Nelson Velez, a regional director for the Puerto Rican power authority, said as he supervised crews working along a busy street in Isla Verde, just east of San Juan, on a recent afternoon. “We have just so many, so many areas affected.”

The office of Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Thursday that about 20 percent of the island has service and he has pledged to get that to 95 percent by Dec. 31. For now, though, most of the island’s 3.4 million people suffer without air conditioning or basic necessities. Many have resorted to using washboards, now frequently seen for sale along the side of the road, to clean clothes, and sleeping on their balconies and flocking to any open restaurants for relief from daytime temperatures above 90 degrees.

“I thought we would we have power in the metro area by now,” said Pablo Martinez, an air conditioning technician, shaking his head in frustration.

Hurricane Maria, which caused at least 48 deaths on the island, made landfall on the southeastern coast near Yabucoa as a Category 4 storm, with maximum sustained winds of about 154 mph (248 kph). It passed out of the territory about 12 hours later near Barceloneta in the north, still with sustained winds of about 115 mph (185 kph). The onslaught was sufficient to knock down hundreds of transmission towers and thousands of distribution poles and lines.

The storm’s path was ideal for taking down the entire grid. Most of Puerto Rico’s generating capacity is along the southern coast and most consumption is in the north around San Juan, with steel and aluminum transmission towers up to 90 feet (27 meters) tall running through the mountains in the middle. At least 10 towers fell along the most important transmission line that runs to the capital, entangling it with a secondary one that runs parallel and that lost about two dozen towers in a hard-to-reach area in the center of the island.

“It reminds me of a fireball that just burned everything in its path,” said Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers unit working to clear debris and restore the grid, with nearly 400 troops on the ground.

The storm also struck at a terrible time. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority filed for bankruptcy in July. It has put off badly needed maintenance and had just finished dealing with outages from Hurricane Irma in early September.

“You stop doing your typical deferred maintenance, and so you become even that much more susceptible to a storm like Maria and Irma coming and blowing down your towers, water coming up in your substations and flooding them,” said Tom Lewis, president of the U.S. division of Louis Berger, which has been supplying generators in Puerto Rico to clients that include the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Everything becomes that much more sensitive to any kind of damage whether it be from wind or water.”

PREPA Director Ricardo Ramos said the authority is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and contractors to bring in more “bucket trucks” and other equipment. It already has about 400 three- to five-member repair crews and is trying to reach 1,000 within three weeks with workers brought in from the U.S. “With this number of brigades we will be able to advance much more rapidly,” Ramos assured reporters during a recent news conference.

PREPA brought in a Montana company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, to help its crews restore the transmission and distribution lines across the island. It has a rolling contract and can bill up to $300 million for its work, said Odalys de Jesus, a spokeswoman for the power authority.

It is a huge job for a young company, formed in 2015. Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski said previous work restoring transmission lines damaged by wildfires in the western U.S. has prepared them for the Puerto Rico contract. “We don’t like easy,” he said during a break at one of the company’s base camps near Barceloneta.

The camp buzzes with activity as helicopters come and go, taking linemen and equipment to the mountain towers, the pilots deftly navigating the lines and mountains to lower men and equipment to the steel-and-aluminum girds high above the trees. Whitefish had about 270 employees in Puerto Rico as of midweek, working both on transmission and distribution. It expects the number to double in the coming weeks if it can find sufficient lodging and transport to the island.

Other contractors working in Puerto Rico include Fluor Corp., which was awarded a $336.2 million contract from the Army Corps of Engineers for debris removal and power restoration, and Weston Solutions, which is providing two generators to stabilize power in the capital for $35 million.

Their efforts are to restore the system that was in place before the storm, not to build a better one, at least not yet. Gov. Rossello says the island needs to overhaul its power grid, make it less vulnerable and look at alternative sources. He welcomed a proposal by Elon Musk, CEO of electric-car company Tesla, to expand solar energy and has raised the issue of longer-term improvements with Washington.

House Speaker Paul Ryan seemed to express at least a willingness to consider helping Puerto Rico build back better when he visited the island this month. “If you going to put up a power line let’s put up a power line that can withstand hurricane-force winds,” he said. “It makes no sense to put temporary patches on problems that have long term effects.”

Techmanski said Whitefish was making progress on the line that carries about 230,000 volts to San Juan from the Aguirre power plant in the south, which will vastly increase the amount of power reaching the capital.

“We’re getting it done,” he said. But, asked about the goal of getting 95 percent of power back by the end of the year, he wasn’t sure: “It is very optimistic at this point.”

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