Contractors Are Leaving Puerto Rico, Where Many Still Lack Power

Workers installing a power pole in Coamo, P.R., last month. Nearly 1,000 workers have left the island in the last two weeks in what the Army Corps of Engineers calls a “responsible drawdown.”

SAN JUAN, P.R. — Though hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans remain in the dark five months after a devastating hurricane trampled the island’s power grid, the federal government has begun to scale back the number of contractors it has working to get the lights back on.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the federal effort to repair the power grid on the island, where a Category 4 storm last fall knocked out electricity to every home and business. The corps gave major contracts to two companies, Fluor Corporation and PowerSecure, and coordinates their work with the efforts of the island’s government-run power utility, which has also hired contractors and brought in crews from mainland utilities.

At one point, there were a total of 6,200 workers repairing transmission and distribution lines across the island, about half of them working for the corps. Now that power has been restored to more than 1.1 million people, by the utility’s count — about 86 percent of the island’s customers — the corps said it would begin a “responsible drawdown” of its work force.

Nearly 1,000 power workers have left the island in the past two weeks, according to Twitter messages posted by the corps. Fluor still had 1,600 people in Puerto Rico as of Sunday, but its contract period is “nearing the end,” and PowerSecure is scheduled to wrap up work by April 7, the corps said.

The decision to scale back was met with “indignation” across the island, said Jorge L. González Otero, the mayor of Jayuya, a town in the central part of the island, where about half the residents still lack power.

Fluor has already billed the maximum amount allowed under its $750 million contract, and its subcontractors were told last week to pack up.

“Fluor was among the first companies to get here, about a month and a half ago,” Mr. González Otero said, referring to Jayuya. “They said the contract was over, and they left everything half-done.”

“Imagine, I have people here without power for five months who are 80 years old, disabled, bedridden,” he added, “and they were just beginning to see people 50 meters away get their electricity back. They are growing desperate.”

Fluor’s crews would not be the first contractors to leave abruptly. After a scandal erupted over the Puerto Rico government’s award of its first power restoration contract, worth $300 million, to a small Montana firm, Whitefish Energy, the government canceled the deal.

Many people involved in power restoration said that officials overseeing the work were disappointed with the Army Corps of Engineers contractors. Fluor in particular was criticized for working sluggishly and using up the money available under its contract without accomplishing as much as expected.

Fluor is a Texas-based construction giant that has done more than $30 billion in government work over the past four decades, much of it for the Defense Department, federal records show.

“I understand that they were slow — super slow,” Mr. González Otero said. “Now we don’t have anyone, slow or at all. We have no one.”

Justo González, the interim executive director of the island’s government-owned utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, also was critical of Fluor’s performance.

“We compared, and saw better work from other companies,” Mr. González said in an interview.

Even so, he said, the corps’s decision to let the Fluor workers leave was worrisome.

“It concerns me,” he said. “It can affect our ability to energize. We wanted them to continue. What do I want? To energize as quickly as possible.”

A spokesman for Fluor denied that there had been any questions about its work.

“To date, we have restored power to 250,000 customers by fixing 7,500 poles, installing 462 miles of wire, more than 20,000 conductors, and repaired 170 transmission lines,” the company said. Under the limits set by the contract on the time and money to be expended, the company said, “we are reaching the end of both, and have been directed by the corps to begin transitioning people and equipment off of the island.”

The corps said that restoring power to some of the hardest-hit areas of Puerto Rico, including Arecibo and Caguas, would take a few more months. The “right number of restoration workers” were “actively engaged” in completing the job, the corps said in a statement.

“We will not rest until we have the lights back on for all of our fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico,” Col. Jason Kirk said in the statement.

Ahsha Tribble, who oversees power efforts for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Puerto Rico, said it was unfair to single out Fluor for leaving before restoration was complete, because other private companies that came to the island from New York and other states under mutual assistance agreements were also considering scaling back soon.

“At 86 percent restoration, we are starting to shave off people,” Ms. Tribble said. “In any normal course of restoration, you ramp up until you start getting your successes, and then you begin to start ramping down.”

Many of the remaining areas without power are in mountainous regions where it is not possible to squeeze in thousands of workers at once, she said.

Island residents, many of them still struggling to get basic services, were surprised by the corps’s announcement.

“We are so appreciative of everything these people have done — these workers risked their lives coming here, working in dangerous helicopters and all of that,” said Nydia Guzmán, 72, who spent Friday at one of the utility’s customer service offices, along with dozens of other customers who were disputing their bills.

“But they can’t leave now,” Ms. Guzmán said. “There’s too much left to be done.”

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