After Whitefish, U.N. frets over Puerto Rico reconstruction

By U.N. estimates, close to 2.8 million people are still without power more than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
By Daniel J. Graeber Follow @dan_graeber Contact the Author   |  Oct. 30, 2017 at 5:57 AM
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Oct. 30 (UPI) -- A day after a Puerto Rico utility stepped away from a controversial restoration contract, the United Nations said it was worried by the pace of reconstruction.

Leilani Farha, a U.N. special envoy on the right to housing, joined several others in saying the U.S. federal response to Hurricane Maria, which swept over the region as a Category 5 hurricane in mid September, has been skewed toward territorial states. As of Monday, more than 80 percent of the population on the federal territory, or close to 2.8 million people, are without electricity, more than a month after the storm made landfall.

By comparison, power was out for about 12 to 14 days across New York after Hurricane Sandy, a superstorm that hit the U.S. east coast in 2012.

With winter approaching, the U.N. envoys said time was of the essence.

"We call on the United States and Puerto Rican authorities to remove regulatory and financial barriers to reconstruction and recovery," the envoys said.

The concern came one day after the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said it would cancel a $300 million power restoration contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings.

Whitefish Energy formed two years ago and had two employees when Maria struck Puerto Rico. U.S. federal investigators have opened lines of questioning into the contract for the small Montana-based company, located in U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's hometown.

"Even before Hurricane Maria struck, Puerto Rico's human rights were already being massively undermined by the economic and financial crisis and austerity policies, affecting the rights to health, food, education, housing, water and social security," Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, a U.N. envoy on debt and human rights, said in an emailed statement.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he aims to restore electricity to half of the island by Nov. 15 and to 95 percent of the island by the end of the year. In the wake of the Whitefish contract, the governor said he reached out to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to discuss the task of restoring Puerto Rico's power.

Technology and automotive company Tesla said the "first of many solar and storage projects" had started on the U.S. territory last week. The company used its Powerpack energy storage batteries in combination with solar cells to first restore power to Hospital del Niño in San Juan, the island territory's capital city.

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