Recovery efforts ramp up as Fiona’s remnants dump more rain
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The Star
With rains still lingering across Puerto Rico, the island is now past the emergency stage and in active recovery, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said at a press conference Tuesday.
“Towns are receiving a lot of rain,” the governor said. “Everyone should take the proper precautions so as not to endanger their family. This is tough, and there is a lot of damage, and we are assessing the extent islandwide.”
Towns such as Lajas, Yabucoa, Maunabo and Guayama have seen extensive flood damage. San Lorenzo has seen the most flooding, with 29 inches of rain in the past 72 hours. In the Lajas Valley, an agricultural center of the island, many crops were destroyed entirely.
“Rain damage was catastrophic in the center, south, and southeast of the island,” Pierluisi said. “[Today] the weather may improve even though there may be rain bands.”
Work and study are going back to normal if the weather permits, said the governor, who ordered agency heads to coordinate for public employees to return to work.
“It is our obligation as a government to provide for that continuity,” he said. “Each agency head will activate available personnel; they should verify if the facility is ready to receive personnel.”
Pierluisi added that the Education Department is assessing all facilities to gauge which ones can be opened to students as soon as Thursday.
“As for the schools, we are in an inspection process, and Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés will be communicating which schools will be able to receive new students in the next few days,” the governor said.
Regarding relief efforts, Pierluisi called on nonprofit and faith-based organizations to assist those in need, recognizing that most of those entities are more effective in getting help out to people than the government in times of emergency.
About his statement on Monday that Puerto Rico didn’t need additional assistance -- which upset many organizations and citizens -- the governor made a point of explaining that what he meant was that the island could manage on its own for the time being, considering that ports and airports were closed, but now any help would be appreciated.
Pierluisi added that he asked President Joe Biden to issue a major disaster declaration.
“In it, we will be requesting that FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] programs be activated for public and individual assistance,” he said. “We are limiting the request to this type of assistance, not for permanent work. For those, we will be making a separate application.”
“We are doing a major disaster application for public and individual emergency assistance, and I hope the president will grant our application promptly,” the governor continued. “When that happens, FEMA will be fully available to supplement the efforts of the emergency management bureau in recovery efforts. We are also requesting that the federal government assume 100 percent of the cost of this assistance for 30 days. After that, the percentage will be 90 percent federal government, 10 percent local government for all FEMA assistance programs.”
“The rains continue, so the response work continues,” Pierluisi said. “We urge people to be judicious to avoid misfortune in particularly at-risk areas in the south and the mountain.”
Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service reported that the region most affected by rain was San Lorenzo, with 29 inches.
“In addition, the forecast indicates three more inches of rain,” Morales warned. “It’s not much, but it doesn’t take much for the rivers to overflow.”
Three people have died in shelters, apparently due to natural causes. There are 1,223 people housed in 92 shelters, and 77 pets in 70 of those shelters.
Citizens demand the return of water and electricity
Josué Colón Ortiz, executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), said that on Monday evening, Unit 9 in San Juan, Unit 2 in Cambalache, and Unit 3 in Mayagüez were operational. Crews also managed to energize one unit in Aguirre, he said.
“LUMA and PREPA employees are coordinating to energize units 1 and 3, two combined cycle combustion turbines, and the AES plant in Guayama,” Colón Ortiz said. “In the case of Costa Sur and Ecoeléctrica, we are waiting for a LUMA patrol. If those lines can be energized, we should start them up in between 12 and 16 hours.”
The PREPA chief added that the east was energized up to Fajardo, the marine cable was energized, and Vieques, where there is an emergency generator, was energized as well.
Abner Gómez, spokesperson for LUMA Energy, which is in charge of the transmission and distribution of electricity on the island, said: “At the moment, we have 300,000 clients with service; we already have four [helicopters] flying over the lines and doing inspections, and right now we are patrolling Costa Sur and the ones that go to the east.”
“Once they are certified, we will start to put those machines into service,” he said. “We will put customers into service in a responsible manner.”
As for the issue with the LUMA website, which is not reporting how many customers are out of service, Gómez explained that “we took the OMS system out of service because it was stuck at 800,000 customers.”
“This system lets the feeders in the substations report how many customers are connected,” he noted. “When all of them go out of service, the system freezes. As we start putting the units into service, the system will stabilize and continue communicating when it starts to increase.”
Gómez and Pierluisi reiterated that “much of Puerto Rico will be energized” during the day. However, they couldn’t offer an estimate of how many customers that would be.
The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), meanwhile, has managed to restore service to 40% of its customers.
“We are facing the situation of the heavy rainfall we have received; more than 50% of our filtration plants were impacted, river levels are high, and the mayors have been very cooperative in the effort to speed up this recovery,” PRASA Executive President Doriel Págan Crespo said. “Right now, we have 55 trucks for water hauling [and] we will be adding additional trucks.”
The metropolitan area is at 50% service, and PRASA expects to ramp up production to 75%, the official added.
“We have all our staff activated, we have not stopped, and we will continue without interruption until all our customers have service,” she said.