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Towns left out of major disaster declaration can still apply for aid


By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar

Special to The Star

alejandra.jover@gmail.com


Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesman Orlando Oliveras gave assurances Thursday that the list of municipalities included in the major disaster declaration approved by President Joe Biden is not final and will include those left out.


“The people of Puerto Rico declared the 78 municipalities for emergency work. Although only 55 municipalities were included in the declaration, and we understand the discomfort of our mayors, this does not mean that this determination is final,” Oliveras said. “We are working hard with the government of Puerto Rico to continue with this damage analysis to add more municipalities to the presidential declaration.”


“I want to clarify that all 78 municipalities were declared for the emergency category, which should still be the priority,” the FEMA official added. “In due course, we will be working with that.”


The second item on the daily press conference was the lack of power and what LUMA Energy and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) have done to ensure everyone has their service restored as quickly as possible.


PREPA Executive Director Josué Colón Ortiz said “there will be times when there are lines available to deliver generation, and at other times there will be generation available, and there will be no lines,” he said. “Units are working in San Juan and Palo Seco, as well as the Black Start units in Daguao [Naguabo], Cambalache and Mayagüez. The San Fermín solar farm is also in service.”


“This is the energy production scenario: in the transmission and distribution network, all the plants are interconnected; since Wednesday night, both Ecoeléctrica and AES began normalization,” the PREPA chief continued. “The process continues as normal, and the expectation is that there will be an EcoEléctrica unit and an AES unit in service by nightfall. If that happens, we will be injecting 400 megawatts.”


Colón Ortiz added that “the processes have already begun, and the combined cycle units are normalizing their equipment to continue.”


“If that happens without disruption, we will be entering units from the four main power plants in the south so that LUMA can continue connecting customers,” he said.


Picking up from the PREPA official’s remarks, Daniel Hernández, LUMA’s renewable energies director, said “we were talking about the importance of keeping all the plants interconnected. All the generation to connect customers comes from Mayaguëz, Cambalache, Palo Seco and San Juan.”


“We have 475,000 customers in service and are working with PREPA, EcoEléctrica and AES to energize critical loads,” he said.


Hernández noted that a hospital, for example, is a critical load site and represents one customer compared to 10,000 residences.


The engineer added that “[on Wednesday] we were talking about substations. There are 129 available to be energized; all have some critical load, but they are all across the island.”


“The next step is to get more customers connected,” Hernández said. “When those EcoEléctrica and AES plants come in, we start the next step, energizing transmission lines to reach the substations. The important thing is that everyone is reassured that PREPA and LUMA are working in harmony to ensure that the majority of customers have service as soon as possible.”


There was a discrepancy between the number of customers with service reported by Preps (the website recently launched by the government for all information about the emergency) and what PREPA said. A reporter asked if there were customers losing power or if some were energized while others were being disconnected. Colón Ortiz assured reporters that that was not the case.


“Generation has continued to rise. It may be that the platforms are not aligned, but this one [the PREPA platform] is real-time, and we can see more customers connected,” he said. “Currently, the substations do not give me automatic readings; we are going up manually, and the number will likely vary. But the actual generation, the demand, has been increasing. We are not taking away customers.”


“Our priority is critical load, hospitals and critical infrastructure,” said Hernández from LUMA. “In this process, substations near critical loads will also return, and they will also benefit. But we also have to ensure that hospitals and water pumps have service. The rest of the system will ramp up quickly as we add generation and repair lines. We expect to have thousands more customers connected.”


More people have water service


The main issues with the water supply can be understood as turbidity and broken pipes, said Doriel Pagán Crespo, the executive president of Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), in her daily briefing. However, more customers have service than did on Wednesday.


“We have 67% of customers in service, 890,000 people,” she said. “We have 559 generators for almost 400,000 customers served by this equipment.”


The effort now, she added, will be to connect those municipalities with fewer customers on-line, such as Jayuya, Lares, Aguada, Moca, Rincón, Aguadilla, Las Piedras, Lajas, San Germán and Las Marías.


“These municipalities have trouble because irrigation canals were obstructed by debris, and we have already cleaned them,” Pagán Crespo said. “The expectation is to be able to increase production.”


There have been other situations, such as plants not having a working generator while LUMA works to restore power, flooding of facilities, or broken equipment. Repairs are underway, the PRASA chief said.


There is no diesel or fuel shortage


Some citizens have taken to social media to complain that gas stations around the island don’t have regular fuel, making them purchase premium because “there’s no product.” Consumer Affairs (DACO by its Spanish acronym) Secretary Edan Rivera Rodríguez denied that there is a product shortage.


“It is important to note that there are sufficient fuel supplies in Puerto Rico: regular for 16 days, premium for 29 days and diesel for 17 days. The market continues to return to normal,” he said. “There have been particular situations in the distribution of some of these products that are being addressed, and there is a peak in demand that is being met as the [tanker] trucks arrive at the gas stations.”


“In the central mountainous area, there have been distribution problems, but as the days go by, it is normalizing,” the DACO secretary added. “But there are and will be sufficient supplies. On Saturday morning, a ship arrives with more than 300,000 barrels of diesel, and there will be no problem with the product.”


Rivera Rodríguez also called on citizens not to hoard fuel.


“Consume the products normally as circumstances allow,” he said. “If you normally don’t fill the tank of your car, don’t do it now; there’s enough product for everybody.”


As for telecommunications, no representative from the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Bureau was present at the press conference, but it was acknowledged that 30 percent of cell towers are out of service due to a lack of power.


Feds warn about disaster relief fraud


Also on Thursday, U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the District of Puerto Rico urged the public to report alleged fraud schemes related to disaster relief operations and federal funding for victims of Hurricane Fiona by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline (1-866-720-5721) or NCDF’s online portal for complaints at http://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.


“The U.S. Attorney’s Office will vigorously prosecute those who commit disaster-related fraud, including those who deliberately attempt to delay or disrupt the delivery of critical supplies to those who need them, such as water, gasoline, diesel fuel and other materials, so they can unfairly enrich themselves,” Muldrow said in a written statement.


“We also take this opportunity to thank our first responders and those who have selflessly helped their neighbors and others in need,” he added. “It is that spirit of resilience and compassion that characterizes Puerto Rico.”


In coordination with its federal and local law enforcement partners, Muldrow said, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will investigate and prosecute hurricane relief schemes. The NCDF hotline can receive and enter complaints into a centralized system that can be accessed by all U.S. attorneys, as well as the litigation and law enforcement components of the Department of Justice to identify, investigate and prosecute fraud schemes.


Muldrow also served warning to any “unscrupulous individuals and organizations and predators who use the tragic event to prey on those in need and who seek to illegally profit from the natural disaster at the expense of the good and hardworking residents of Puerto Rico.”


Joseph González, the special agent in charge of the FBI San Juan Field Office, added that “[d]isaster fraud and related acts of corruption hurt those who are most in need at the time of greatest need.”


“This should shock everyone’s conscience and move anyone who witnesses such acts to immediate action,” González said. “The FBI is on alert and we encourage anyone who has information about disaster fraud and/or any related act of corruption to call 787-987-6500 or leave a lead online by visiting Tips.FBI.Gov. Don’t let criminals steal Puerto Rico’s opportunity to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Fiona.”


John McPhaul contributed to this report.

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