Puerto Rico Governor Says He's Frustrated By Island's Situation 42 Days After Hurricane Maria
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Puerto Rico, it is still a struggle to provide basic necessities to people now 42 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island. Ricardo Rossello is the governor of Puerto Rico, and he's here in Washington today. He joins us now from Capitol Hill. Governor Rossello, welcome back to the program.
RICARDO ROSSELLO: Thank you, Mary Louise, good to be here.
KELLY: We're glad to have you here. I want to start by asking you about the power grid. Officially, about a third of the grid is now working, but that leaves, of course, the vast majority of Puerto Ricans without electricity. And we're hearing from our reporters on the ground that people in Puerto Rico are - believe far more than two-thirds of the population is still without power. Why is it taking so long?
ROSSELLO: Well, that is a good question. First of all, I set an aggressive agenda. One of the elements of the aggressive agenda and milestones was to have 30 percent of the electricity back by October 30. We're over 35 percent now, so we've met that milestone. Secondly, it is important to know that this was a very devastating event. A lot of the infrastructure was severely destroyed. We really have to pick it up. And lastly, you know, September 30 I signed a mission statement with the Corps of Engineers under the statement that it was going to take them 45 days to pick up the energy grid.
It has been more than 30 days now, Mary Louise, and all we have are seven brigades from the Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico, whereas the bulk of the work or all of the work has been done by our power authority, over 400 brigades, that we have over there. But right now, based on that limitation, we have asked for mutual aid assistance from the states of New York and Florida so that we can bypass that, you know, that lack of urgency from the Corps and actually get brigades into Puerto Rico.
KELLY: Let me ask you about the big picture here, though. If one of the overarching goals is to get power back on for all people in Puerto Rico, one of the challenges there is having a company that can come in and rebuild the grid. So I want to ask you about the decision, your decision, to cancel this contract with Whitefish Energy, a decision that will further delay restoring electric power to Puerto Rico. Briefly, why did you cancel it?
ROSSELLO: Well, first of all, I canceled it because it was becoming a major distraction. There is an investigation. I called for two independent investigations, but they were going to take too long, so in the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico, I decided to ask for the cancellation of that contract.
KELLY: I guess the challenge is this - that as you're haggling over contracts, you know, we have reporters on the ground telling us MRI machines are not working. Wells are contaminated. Less than half the dialysis centers on the island are not working.
ROSSELLO: Right. But those things have nothing to do with the process of the contracting. Those things are...
KELLY: They have to do with the fact that there's no power on vast majority of Puerto Rico.
ROSSELLO: Right. And the reason why is because there was a Category 5 hurricane that was basically stationary in Puerto Rico at eight miles an hour that impacted the whole of the island and then destroyed an already weak energy grid.
KELLY: The last time you and I spoke, Governor Rossello, not even a week had passed since Hurricane Maria hit. And you had a message you wanted to deliver loud and clear that Puerto Rico needed the full support of the U.S. government. Has that message been heard? Do you have everything you need from the federal government?
ROSSELLO: Well, there are certain areas that it has. I mean, I have to say, for example, that the Department of Defense has been working diligently. FEMA, for the most part, has been working within the limitations that it has. But again, the Corps of Engineers - right now, we don't know when those brigades are coming, when they're going to start working and executing. So my role, you know, is to shine a light on that, establish that we are extremely unsatisfied with that, that has - you know, that has been a significant obstacle to our growth and then look for alternatives, which have been the mutual aid agreements that we've established.
KELLY: President Trump has said the federal response has been a 10 to the crisis in Puerto Rico. What number would you give it?
ROSSELLO: Well, I'm not in a position to evaluate, to give those grades right now. That is not my job. My job is to make sure what is effective and what is not - you know, I'll establish it and what is not effective, I'll establish it as well.
KELLY: That's Governor Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico. Governor Rossello, thanks so much for taking the time.
ROSSELLO: Thank you.
KELLY: The Army Corps of Engineers tells NPR in a statement it understands Governor Rossello's frustration. It realizes the importance of restoring power as quickly as possible, and it is expediting the delivery of crews, material and equipment to the island. The Corps says, quote, "we will not be satisfied until the people of Puerto Rico have safe and reliable power."
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