- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2018

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico | Nearly four months after two hurricanes hit this island, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response in Puerto Rico says he has never before had to continue emergency relief efforts like delivering food, water and temporary roofing so long after a natural disaster.

“So this far into a disaster in my experience, at least in the last 20 years, we never do that, we’re never — the food and water would have stopped weeks ago. But we can’t, and one of the driving factors for that is power,” Michael Byrne, the federal coordinating officer for FEMA, told The Washington Times.

Since Sept. 6, FEMA had been responding to a state of emergency on Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma when Hurricane Maria made landfall on the U.S. territory on Sept. 20. About 1 million islanders had lost power during Irma, when Maria killed electricity for nearly the entire 3.5 million population.

FEMA tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with overseeing the reconstruction of the entire electric grid, not an unprecedented event but unheard of after a natural disaster, officials said.

Nearly 50,000 wooden, concrete or steel electrical poles need to be repaired or replaced, and about 65 percent of the substations and power plants were destroyed.

Officials hesitate to give a schedule for when they’ll finish the job but hope to achieve 95 percent connection levels by the end of February or the end of March.

Mr. Byrne, a veteran New York City firefighter who joined FEMA in 1999, has helped manage disasters throughout the Northeast, from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy. Yet he says he can’t help but be humbled by the scope of the help Puerto Rico requires.

“Every time you think you’ve met the last challenge — I can’t have another curveball thrown at me, right, another curveball I hate talking like this because I hate making excuses,” he said. “We have to humble ourselves by the fact that the storm did so much damage that it requires these extraordinary levels of effort but I think we should be proud of some of the work that’s going on.”

In addition to Puerto Rico, the FEMA region Mr. Byrnes oversees consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Native American tribes in the region. He was appointed to the post last January.

With regard to Puerto Rico, rebuilding its infrastructure to meet current U.S. standards and codes would be a major boon for the Caribbean island, whose roads, power system and other infrastructure elements had long been neglected before the storms.

Mr. Byrne said that Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello has asked FEMA to invoke at least three sections of the federal Stafford Act to allow the agency to not only rebuild what was damaged but do so in a smarter way.

“I think we’re in a position, the strongest position I’ve ever been in, in a disaster recovery, I would say, to do the right thing and not just build back what was there,” he said.

Enacted by Congress in 1988, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act amended a previous law to clarify the federal role in disaster aid for state and local governments. Among other things, it forbids territories from using federal disaster aid to fund projects they would not have paid for themselves.

Mr. Byrne said Section 428 of the Stafford Act would allow his agency to rebuild damaged structures smarter — so that FEMA doesn’t have to return to rebuild the same infrastructure after the next storm.

“So, for example, if a transmission station was damaged and it’s in the flood plain, we don’t have to build it back there, we can move it,” he said.

Under a classic FEMA program, Mr. Byrne said, that would be called an “alternate project” and would affect the amount of federal funding available.

“But because we’re using 428, we can actually do it without losing any potential federal dollars,” the FEMA regional chief said.

Other amendments to the Stafford Act — 404 and 406 — create grant programs that help fund projects to rebuild damaged infrastructure better than before, he noted.

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