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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Power Restoration Strategy for Puerto Rico Post-Maria

Carlos L. Yordán, PhD


In my previous post, I noted that Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico. His main criticism is that the USACE has not moved quickly enough to repair the island’s electrical system. In this post, I want to discuss the USACE’s role in the restoration efforts and its overall strategy.

The Robert T Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Act’s provisions inform the federal government’s responses to natural disasters. The act gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) the authority to coordinate the federal government’s relief efforts. FEMA relies on the USACE for emergency support for “public works and engineering-related” projects, which include everything from removing debris to the installment of “blue roofs”. FEMA can also provide the USACE long-term assignments in these areas, as it did on 30 September 2017 when FEMA tasked the USACE to assist PREPA’s efforts to rebuild the electric system.

Like FEMA, the USACE’s role in disaster relief is to support the state government’s restoration efforts. Thus, it is wrong to say that the USACE is in control over PREPA’s work. The USACE is part of the Power Restoration Task Force to Coordinate the Restoration Efforts. The following organizational chart, based on a recent PREPA document, captures the USACE’s role in the Task Force.

Organizational_Chart_PowerRest_TaskForce_PR2018 (1)

The USACE’s power restoration strategy can be divided into four elements. First, the USACE has been installing temporary emergency generators throughout the island. These generators, which most have been installed by the USACE’s 249th Engineering Battalion, have powered critical facilities, including hospitals, fire stations, water treatment plants, water pumps, and telecommunication towers and so forth.

The second set of efforts have been linked to the electricity system’s power generation capacities. The USACE’s goal has been to work closely with PREPA and private contractors to increase electricity generation to a level between 2,500 and 3,000 megawatts, which represents the electric system’s average peak load before the hurricanes struck the island.

The third element is the restoration of the electric transmission system. Hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed 680 out of the 800 the transmissions towers that connect the system’s power plants to the distribution system. A recent study explains that only 15% of theses towers were built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. It also noted the storm affected over two-thirds of the system’s 334 transmission and sub-transmission stations, which convert electricity to a lower voltage so it can be distributed to the system’s residential, governmental, commercial and industrial customers.

The fourth element is the rebuilding of the distribution system, which is “made up of roughly 1,200 circuits, with over 30,000 miles of overhead and underground lines.” Because that the system was not built to withstand a Category 4 storm, Hurricanes Irma and Maria knocked down over 50,000 utility poles and damaged close to 75% of the circuits.

This four-part strategy puts in perspective why restoring Puerto Rico’s electric system has been so challenging. And while the organizational chart shows that the USACE is not leading these efforts, for better and worse, it is the most important actor in the Task Force. In the next posts, we will look at the USACE’s work in the four elements of this strategy. This will give us an opportunity to further analyze its commitments to the overall effort.

Hero image photo by the Fluor Corporation.

© The Puerto Ricao Data Lab. Published by permission in Centro Voices 20 February 2018.