Key lawmaker supports resilient Puerto Rico power system

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WASHINGTON – Puerto Rico’s electrical system needs to be rebuilt with the resiliency to withstand future disasters, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee said Monday.

“We have to get an energy grid up there that will survive the test of time,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, whose committee has oversight over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Some officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency say the agency already has the authority to require that federal funds be used to rebuild to higher standards, but Bishop said he believes federal law is unclear on that.

Bishop said he supports bipartisan legislation would allow federal Stafford Act disaster funding to be used to rebuild more resilient and efficient energy systems. The Rebuilding Resilient Energy Systems Act of 2017 was recently introduced by Reps. Jenniffer Gonzalez, R-Puerto Rico, and Jose Serrano, D-N.Y.

“Long term we have to rebuild everything and build it to a better standard,” Bishop said.

Puerto Rico’s handling of the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Maria will be the subject of an oversight hearing on Tuesday by Bishop’s committee.

The House Natural Resources Committee plans to probe the controversial contract of up to $300 million to the small Montana company, Whitefish Energy, to help restore electricity that was terminated after it received widespread publicity.

Bishop said the recent action by the federal oversight board to review contracts signed by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is a positive step toward transparency and accountability.

“Congress’s role is to ensure everyone is working together,” Bishop said. “We have to get away from the idea that somebody is in power and in control and realize we have four separate entities that have to coordinate and work together and not in an adversarial relationship.”

Those four, he said, are the governor, the oversight board, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Noel Zamot, recently appointed by the territory’s federal oversight board to oversee the troubled electric utility, after the Whitefish contract was revealed, will testify at the hearing along with the executive directors of Puerto Rico’s PROMESA Board and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Also testifying will be the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, who has been a harsh critic of the response to the hurricane, and the mayor of the city of Guaynabo, Angel Pérez Otero.

On a recent visit to Puerto Rico by a bipartisan congressional delegation, Bishop said he saw how great the devastation was during a tour with Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who is scheduled to testify at a second hearing next week.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also reviewed the handling of the humanitarian crisis recently, focusing its attention on the federal assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies.

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