Brock Long, administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says federal officials are slowly making progress in Puerto Rico.(Photo: Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY)
Hurricane Harvey’s blast through Texas will likely prove the costliest in a string of historically powerful storms that battered the United States in recent weeks, FEMA Administrator Brock Long said Tuesday.
Long, testifying in Washington before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said the U.S. is spending more than $200 million per day in recovery efforts for the “unprecedented” hurricanes and devastating California fires that destroyed more than 6,000 homes.
The federal government has provided $52 billion in relief aid, and Long said more money likely will be needed.
“I’ve been in office 132 days,” Long said. “For 70 of those days we have been actively responding to (hurricanes) Harvey, Irma and Maria and the extraordinary California wildfires.”
About 4.5 million Americans signed up for individual federal badistance due to losses from the storms or fires, Long said. FEMA rescue teams saved 9,000 lives — and that doesn’t include the rescues conducted by military, state and local agencies, the so-called “Cajun navy” and “neighbors helping neighbors,” he said.
More than 1 million Americans stayed in shelters, peeking at 200,000 in one night.
“We haven’t had number like that ever before,” Long said.
More: Puerto Rico power restoration: Why it is taking so long
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Long said it was too early to estimate the recovery costs for any of the disasters. He said more than 2.5 million Floridians have signed up for federal badistance compared with less than 1 million Texans. But he said damage to homes in Texas due to Harvey’s flooding was far more severe than what Florida saw from Irma.
In Puerto Rico, Long said the recovery was hampered because a glancing blow from Irma had knocked out power to almost one-third of the island two weeks before Maria’s direct hit Sept. 20. The one-two punch left the island’s government essentially unable to provide badistance, he said.
“They were compromised,” Long said. “When FEMA is the first and primary responder, and is the only responder for many weeks, we are never going to move as fast as everybody would like.”
Long said power has been restored to about 30% of the island. Water has been restored to about 80% of residents and communications and cell service to about 85%.
Long said FEMA had no role in a controversial $300 million contract the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, had signed with a small Montana company to oversee restoration of the island’s power grid. PREPA has said it will cancel the contract amid concerns over how Whitefish Energy Holdings won the contract and the firm’s ability to manage the mammoth task.
Major Gen. Donald Jackson, with the Army Corps of Engineers, said typically the Corps installs temporary generators to provide power while the energy companies work to restore their grids.
“PREPA chose not to do that, so FEMA turned to Corps to help with restoration of the grid,” he said.
Jackson said about half of Puerto Rico’s power is generated with fossil fuels, the other half uses wind and solar energy. He added that the renewable power plants took the most severe hit from the storms.
Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., said merely restoring the power is not enough for the beleaguered island. Jackson and Long, however, said their mandate is to repair, not upgrade.
“We will have failed in our responsibilities collectively if we helped rebuild an electric grid in Puerto Rico that is just as vulnerable, just as energy inefficient, just as pollutant” as what the island had before the storm, Carper said.
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