Moulton ‘a lot of work ahead’ in puerto rico columns salemnews.com e payment electricity bill maharashtra

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One thing I’ve been reminded of in this job is a lesson I first learned in the Marines: If you want to know what’s really going on, you have to get on the ground to see it for yourself. That’s why the Massachusetts congressional delegation traveled to Puerto Rico last week to assess the damage from Hurricane Maria and see how the recovery effort is going.

We flew down care of the United States Air Force earlier this month after votes in Washington. I was happy to meet with a squad of Massachusetts State Police who volunteered to serve in Puerto Rico for a few weeks. Doing everything from manning incredibly chaotic intersections — few traffic lights on the entire island are working yet — to mentoring detectives in homicide investigations, they are proud to be there and we were proud to see them.

Our first stop on our tour was the Hospital del Nino, an inspiring institution dedicated to serving disabled children. We heard from their administrators, spoke with the doctors and got to say hi to the kids. Some of them are well enough that they could be going to school, but even the schools that have re-opened don’t have full-time electricity or potable water. Kids who do go to school in Puerto Rico have to bring a gallon of water with them every day. “Bring your own water and your own toilet paper” is the motto.

At the hospital, simply keeping the lights on remains one of the biggest challenges. “Every day we had to go hustle for diesel,” explained the director, when they subsisted on generator power for weeks. Then they received a donation of solar panels and storage batteries — but on the devastated island, it’s not as simple as plugging them in and turning them on.

The solar power system only covers about 75 percent of the hospital’s electricity, so they still rely on a secondary source like backup diesel generators or a working electrical grid. The grid is back up and running, but capacity is limited, and the electric utility has been refusing to return their calls about installing a device that will enable the solar system to work in concert with traditional power. Later, in our meeting with FEMA, we got them to agree to push through the electric utility bureaucracy on the hospital’s behalf. Hopefully, the solar system will be operational soon, but it’s a temporary installation that will require several hundred thousand dollars to make permanent. I wondered whether, given a few hundred thousand dollars, the solar power system would even be the first investment the hospital would choose — a lot of kids at Hospital del Nino need wheelchairs.

Though most of the island’s electricity is produced on the southern coast; most of it is consumed on the northern coast; and the transmission lines between the two traverse rugged mountains. Helicopters are now required to bring in supplies to repair the hundreds of towers downed by the hurricane.

With abundant sunshine and strong winds just off the north coast, there is a lot of potential for an island-wide distributed power system based on renewable energy. But FEMA laws prohibit investing in any upgrades to the existing infrastructure as part of disaster recovery; they just have to restore what was there. And what was there is not only non-renewable, it’s decades out of date. On top of that, the systems are not standardized across the island, let alone with the rest of the United States, so getting the specialized wire and transformers to literally restore the “existing system” — as FEMA is mandated to do — is terribly difficult and expensive. My colleagues and I are going to look into changing this law — another example of a well-intentioned idea that’s led to frustrating consequences because we can’t make smart investments as we repair the storm damage. Rather than investing in a modern, more resilient electrical system that will weather future storms better, we could well find ourselves back there a year or two from now after another storm, spending more federal tax dollars restoring the same, completely outdated electrical system that we’re replicating today.

It all comes back to the importance of investing in infrastructure as a country. Of course, the new, completely partisan Republican tax bill that was jammed through Congress will make any of the desperately needed investments in our infrastructure much, much harder to do.

At FEMA headquarters, we had a long meeting with officials to discuss all this. The top manager is a patriotic former firefighter who was the commissioner of the NYFD on Sept. 11. He was so impacted by the loss of so many friends and compatriots that he felt called to return to serving the country, so he took on this job at FEMA to continue to give back. We’re lucky to have him there. Just as inspiring was meeting with the next generation of servant-leaders at FEMA, like Brittney, a young woman from Maryland, who spoke with me about her decision to serve our country.

The Trump administration has been touting that 60 percent or more of the island’s power has been restored. This is bad enough as it is — it means 4 out of 10 homes don’t have power — but the numbers are misleading. The numbers they they’ve been using measure the load on the electrical system rather than individual customers. Since industries use much more power than homes, and they have had their electrical service restored more quickly, the numbers really mean that a lot of businesses have gotten their power back, but many, many more people have been without electricity for months. A single business might use as much power in a day as a thousand homes.

Our final stop was at a shelter where I spoke with the mayor about how she’s helping the over 300 families in her city who have no place to live. Another irony of the law is that FEMA has permission to buy these families new furniture, but not new houses! So they can get a new couch but have no house to put it in. This has a lot to do with the complicated history of squatters’ rights in Puerto Rico, something the governor is working to change. In the meantime, FEMA has its hands tied and can’t be much help. But despite being homeless for months, the kids are happy and brave — we owe them a better future.

So now it’s back to work in Washington to try to secure that better future for these American citizens who have been ravaged by the effects of one of the worst hurricane seasons on record. The scale of the disaster is hard to comprehend, and the ongoing human tragedy is painful to witness. FEMA says they have already distributed more generators than after Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Rita combined, yet most Puerto Ricans — who are American citizens, let’s not forget — still don’t have any electricity in their homes, months after the September storms.

Science tells us that these storms and their frequency will only get worse with climate change, so we have a lot of work ahead of us. Now that I’ve seen the damage and recovery efforts firsthand, I have a far better appreciation for how bad things are and what we need to do to improve our response. The bigger and, ultimately more important question, is how we avoid having natural disasters like this become such grave, long-term human disasters in the future.