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FEMA Coordinator Says He's Not Sure When More Of Puerto Rico Will Have Power


Puerto Rico is experiencing a natural disaster on top of a fiscal disaster. The year before Hurricane Maria hit, Congress set up an oversight board to supervise its recovery. Today, that board had its first public meeting since the storm wiped out Puerto Rico's power grid. NPR's Quil Lawrence was at the meeting in San Juan.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: FEMA coordinator Michael Byrne gave an update to Puerto Rico's fiscal oversight and management board on what he called a historic effort. Byrne said FEMA has never delivered so much water, food, shelter and electric generators.


MICHAEL BYRNE: All I can to say to you and to the people here is that if there's something that can be done, we're doing it. If there's an asset that we can draw - pull in, we're pulling it in.

LAWRENCE: He said 80 percent of the island now has running water again. But 70 percent still has no electricity. And Byrne couldn't say when that will change. The blackout has crippled the economy. And the board seems to think the Puerto Rican government has proven unable to get the lights back on. This week, the board used its broad authority to appoint a new executive for Puerto Rico's power company over the objections of the democratically elected local government. Christian Sobrino, who represents the government, said if that's allowed, the board can do anything.


CHRISTIAN SOBRINO: And the powers that are being exercised would provide that. They would provide that the board could remove any judge. It could remove any legislature. It could remove literally any - it could remove me from my own office.

ARTHUR GONZALEZ: I think it's fair to say we disagree with a number of the points that have been made by the governor's representative.

LAWRENCE: Board member Arthur Gonzalez defended the action, which has come in the wake of a scandal over restoring power here. This week, the Puerto Rican government said it would cancel a contract worth up to $300 million with a tiny company out of Whitefish, Mont. That's not the only bad news. Ten to 15 percent of Puerto Ricans may have left the island. Tax revenues are expected to be down by half. Those are estimates the board heard today. And board member Jose Ramon Gonzalez said that means cuts.


JOSE RAMON GONZALEZ: Like it or not, government will have to potentially take serious rightsizing decisions in accordance with the more limited resources, recurring resources that it will face.

LAWRENCE: Rightsizing is code for massive cuts, says Ingrid Vila, former chief of staff to the previous governor of Puerto Rico. She's skeptical of the board's plans from before the hurricane hit. Many schools were set to be closed, for example.


INGRID VILA: There was a fiscal plan with already projections to close out school. Is now the moment to start that plan, to implement that plan? Children have already gone through a traumatic experience of a hurricane. And now you're going to close their schools?

LAWRENCE: She was speaking outside the oversight boards meeting, where about a dozen families had shown up to apply for government assistance. I asked - no one knew that behind the next set of doors, an oversight board appointed by Washington was discussing their future. Quil Lawrence, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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