Federalism obstacles to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal and Physical recovery.

February 28, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the federalism obstacles to Puerto Rico’s fiscal and physical recovery.

Puerto Rico’s Obstacles to Recovery. 78 mayors are set to meet today with Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevarez and representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the delay in the restoration of the island’s energy system—a meeting at which they intend to present the Governor with other problems they confront in their municipios or municipalities in the wake of the hurricane. Since last November, and only weeks after the goal to restore 95% of power by last Christmas has fallen way short, the government yesterday reported restoration had reached over 84%; however, the figures did not make clear whether that percentage reflected generation or subscribers with electricity. Today’s session is focused on providing the Governor the opportunity to make clear his concern that the Corps has so far not addressed the island’s issues and to receive a full explanation why not and “how to correct the situation that is still serious,” according to Rolando Cruz, the president of the Association of Mayors and first executive of Cayey. Also participating are the Mayor Francisco López López of Barranquitas and William Alicea of Aibonito, said that although their primary claim is the restoration of light, their concerns are broader. The key concern relates to the perceived inability, to date, of help from FEMA—especially with regard to bridges and highways, mental health of affected citizens, and the dire challenges of so many who have lost their homes or suffered unaffordable damages—and who have been unable to prove ownership of their property—or, as Mayors López López put it: “Here in the mountains, we are still going through very difficult situations: sectors without electricity, without drinking water, roads destroyed.” The apprehension is, if anything, worsening: yesterday, Governor Rosselló Nevares denounced the decision by the U.S. Treasury to reduce, without explanation, the amount of initial financing of $4,700 million by more than half to $2,030 million from the line of Congressionally approved credit for Puerto Rico. In his letter to Congressional leaders, the Governor wrote that the U.S. had “effectively blocked access to some $4.7 billion from the CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) program,” urging intervention to avoid “further damage and suffering to the residents of Puerto Rico,” noting that any material interruption of public services would only exacerbate the emigration of its population to the continental United States. He added that the Treasury has imposed conditions incompatible with the purpose of the program, while criticizing that the federal agency has canceled the ability to cancel any CDL issued to Puerto Rico “in clear contravention of the applicable law,” writing that the U.S. territory is approaching spring in the same precarious fiscal situation, with the possibility that the Treasury will cancel federal aid approved by law,” notwithstanding the Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency’s compliance with each request from Treasury. His epistle noted that despite the immediate cooperation of the agency, the Treasury did not provide the agency with economic terms or other material terms for the CDL program (In an effort to help Puerto Rican citizens relocating to the mainland in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Federal Motor Carrier Administration had waived certain requirements in an effort to help them obtain commercial learner’s permits or commercial driver’s licenses: according to the Governor, last January 9th, the Treasury and FEMA had sent a letter to the local government regarding the implementation of a cash balance policy in order to facilitate access the CDL financing—but a letter requesting Puerto Rico to exhaust its own resources before the Treasury and FEMA would provide access to CDL program funds.

Chapter Nueve? Even as Puerto Rico is struggling to address its severe physical challenges, notices with regard to the deadline for filing proofs of claim in Puerto Rico’s five Title III bankruptcy cases are going out this week, as U.S. Judge Laura Taylor Swain had set a Monday deadline for the notices to be delivered. Notwithstanding, and not to be blamed on the mailman, FAFA Executive Director Gerardo Portela Franco reported the notices would start to be sent out this week—with five of the Title III entities having at least $52.5 billion in debt outstanding, in what has now become  the largest quasi municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: the notices in question will inform creditors that they will have until May 29th to file a proof of claim in the cases. The debt issuers here include: the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. (COFINA), the Employees Retirement System of the Government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Responding will matter: those who fail to file a timely-filed proof of claim or trustee proof of claim will lose any claim for compensation for their municipal bonds, as well as their rights to vote on any plan of debt adjustment. Indeed, yesterday, PREPA bond trustee U.S. Bank National Association posted a notice to EMMA stating it planned to file a proof of claim on behalf of the bondholders, specifying: “[I]f you believe that you may have separate or additional claims against the Authority other than the claims with respect to principal, interest and other amounts owing on your bonds or have claims against other Title III debtors or other persons or entities concerning your bonds or otherwise, you should consult with your legal professionals regarding those claims and take appropriate action within the applicable time period.”

On the physical, as opposed to the fiscal storm front, in the wake of the U.S.’s worst blackout in American history, the complicated and costly effort for a quasi-chapter 9 entity, major chunks of infrastructure and power restoration appears to have reached a plateau: while most, today, have electricity, it is unclear how much longer those in the dark will have to wait. Jay Field, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, notes: “The bulk of the work that is left is the hardest, requiring helicopter support and long commutes to remote, hard-to-access job sites…Weather is also an issue due to rain and heavy winds.” Last week, Puerto Rico’s unified grid-restoration command reported it expects to have 90 to 95% of the territory’s power restored by March 31st: it estimates that the hard-hit municipality of Arecibo will have its electricity restored by mid-April, and the municipality of Caguas by late May. He offered no timeline for other darkened municipios. A critical part of the physical recovery challenge has been the complicated overlapping lines of authority, as well as Puerto Rico’s insolvency: even though the U.S. Army Corps is in charge of overall recovery, PREPA has been in charge of much of the repair work—a Puerto Rican authority which is $9 billion in debt—and which, last week, suffered a fiscal blow when Judge Laura Taylor Swain  rejected its plea for a $550 million loan—leading the utility to respond it would start reducing output at some of its power plants, because it could not afford fuel. In its court filing, the utility stated that the scenario “exacerbated the risk to an already fragile system and leaves it vulnerable to outages and resulting in brownouts on the island.” That work involves nearly 6,000 repair workers now on the island, but where, seemingly on a daily basis, the workers keep finding new problems.

As of last Wednesday, 343,000 electricity customers were without grid power, the lowest number yet: in the wake of the storm, there were nearly 1.6 million customers experiencing a blackout. So, on the one hand, there has been significant progress; however, much of the progress has been followed by drops, as PREPA’s old and fragile grid has occasionally failed and plunged swaths of newly restored customers back into darkness. Most recently, a fire at a substation two weeks ago, for instance, plunged more than 343,000 and much of the capital of San Juan into darkness. Thus it means, still today, that thousands of homes and businesses are running either full or part-time on backup diesel generators—meaning those families or businesses are running generators, forcing them to pay for fuel. For PREPA, the challenge is aggravated by the uncertainty with regard to certainty about how many customers are without grid power: from the onset of Maria until early November, PREPA gave a rough estimate; then it simply stopped trying: the damage to the grid was so extensive that the utility could simply no longer determine  how many of its customers were drawing electricity. It was only near the end of last month that PREPA started reporting its percentage of “normal peak load” which had been restored. Nevertheless, that reporting indicates the percentage of power restored has risen from 19% in early October to almost 84% last week. Yet, even that restoration has been unreliable: even though parts of PREPA’s grid have crashed on numerous occasions during the recovery, only a few of those outages are shown by the data—a deficiency, because power was often restored within hours or days and, ergo, was not captured in the weekly reports.

Another serious challenge has been substations: Puerto Rico has 342 distribution substations, which convert power from transmission to distribution use: improvement has occurred slowly since November, but has been basically flat in 2018: the grid’s 56 transmission substations have seen no improvement since December: these stations step up voltage for long-distance delivery or prepare it for transport along transmission lines of different voltages. Progress is a challenge: Fernando Padilla, a senior PREPA adviser, reported that damage to the substations still offline was so devastating that they need to be rebuilt from the ground up: “A portion of the substations, specifically those that are close to where the eye of the hurricane passed, remain totally destroyed. Those require complete reconstruction (engineering, design, mitigation, etc.)…The PREPA system has points of interconnection that permit energy to be carried through various zones without having to pass by these particular substations: This isn’t the norm, and it augments the risk to the reliability of the system. But in general, it can be done.”

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