Saturday, January 13, 2018

What is Wrong?

This situation is a mess.  Despite everyone's hard work and great intentions, the situation here is just rough.

We have so many problems, that I have to number them.

1.  When the Corps of Engineers came down to Puerto Rico, we were tasked with doing one thing.  Eventually, the work we were doing was morphed into something else. And then something else.  First we were restoring the grid (ESTAMOS AQUI!).  Then we were restoring all power to everyone (YAY!).  Then we were restoring some power, and working with the local utility to bring the rest back (POWER TO THE PEOPLE!).  It is difficult, however, to capture the flag if your end zones keep changing.

We are working in partnership with FEMA, who is providing the funds, and with the local electric board.  PREPA is a public utility, they are flat broke (having declared bankruptcy in July of last year), they have a system that is hopelessly outdated, and are almost entirely made up of people who replaced their predecessors, many of whom got fired after the storm.

The media reported on something this week that demonstrates a serious issue.  There is a warehouse that was under the control of the local public utilities company.  Apparently, there was a bit of consternation about the fact that they were not coming forward with the stuff that was stockpiled there.  The lead from FEMA gave the strong impression in a stakeholders meeting that she was not above using Federal Marshals to storm the place and turn the materials over to the contractors doing the work.

The story here gets a little muddy.  But the best I can figure out, the warehouse was filled with materials from dead projects.  You know, like that 1958 Ford Fairlane that you have in your garage, but have never been able to complete?  The parts are stacked up, but you have completely given up on getting it running again.

And yet, if someone asked you for parts for fixing cars, you might not think of your Fairlane.

That is kind of what the current situation was with the power company.  They had dead project stuff.  Not well catalogued.  Not usable for regular maintenance.  Not on anybody's radar.  There is also suggestions that the information about what was there had been made available, but that the right people did not know about it.  (The communication issues following a disaster is a whole different blog entry).

In any case, the team visited the warehouse the next day, and the contractors showed up with forklifts and trucks and teams of people who signed for, and then hauled the stuff away.  And what they got was a treasure trove of usable material.  And the news media reported this, followed by this.

Remember how I said that the power grid was hopelessly out of date?  Yeah, well those 'Ford Fairlane' parts become critical when you are repairing 'cars' from the late 1950s.  And the warehouse is full of old, out-of-date Fairlane parts.  Parts that are not being made any longer.  Parts that were having to be created out of whole cloth in order to fix the grid.

After the warehouse got emptied out, 10,000 meters were brought online.  That is an estimated 30,000 people that had been waiting on electricity that now have electricity.  30,000 people that could have been lit up 2 months earlier, if we had been able to connect resource and need.  Two full months.

I attended a 'raid' of another warehouse on Thursday of this week.  We were given a list of the parts available.  We went through the list, and counted parts that I did not recognize, and there just wasn't much.  As the contractor who was there to help said, "The cupboard here is pretty bare.  We can use a lot of this stuff, but we'd go through all of it in a morning."

In a nutshell, I don't think that there is an effort to withhold materials.  At least not as much as the press reports.  Most everyone wants to help, to push to get things done faster, and to make things happen.


2. The local utility authority did not ask for mutual aid when the storm hit.  Normally, immediately after a disaster (and often beforehand) Georgia Power and Electric (or fill in your own utility company here) will request mutual aid from its sister utilities, and Iowa Power and electric will send its trucks to a spot just outside the danger zone, where they will wait.  the moment the danger is passed, hundreds of workers and equipment and trucks and experts descend like locusts, clearing and preparing and connecting and working incredible hours, getting overtime hours while charging to someone else's nickel.

Puerto Rico does not have neighboring states.  And she did not ask for help from the states that could provide help.

There are a number of reasons why not.  But the biggest one, as best I understand, was that there was no promise that they could pay.  FEMA was reluctant to promise to pay for an agreement that had not been vetted beforehand.  And the utility company was bankrupt. Nobody is going to come on a promise that there might be a future payment, sometime, maybe.

After the story about Whitefish broke, the head of the Puerto Rican utility was replaced, and the new chief immediately asked for help from industry.

That was on 31 October.  The first people to arrive from that request came this week.  January 10.  Yes, that is 2-1/2 months after the request.

Now the industry folks are coming in to save the day, and I am a little grumpy about that.  I came late in the process - I have been on island since 19 November - and came in feeling like I had been late to the party because I had not been on the ground from the start.

I cannot imagine getting that call and waiting for almost three months to get boots on the ground.  Nevertheless, to be fair, if they had gotten here earlier, they would not have had material.  We overcame a lot of obstacles to get us up and running, as far as the materials are concerned.  Now, we are still likely to outstrip our materials (and hotel rooms, for that matter), but we at least have people to do the work whose expertise is perfectly matched to the task.

3.  The Corps was challenged in court.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, we were charged to do the work.  This is not a typical Corps mission, but Department of Energy simply did not have the manpower or the contracting ability to get the people and materials and equipment onto the island and get them working towards a temporary - and eventually a permanent - solution.  They declined the mission.

The Corps of Engineers has as our motto, "Essayons": we will try.

Immediately on getting the assignment, we looked around for the fastest way of getting people on the ground to do the work.  We used the contracts available at three different districts to reach out.  We issued two contracts, following an expedited process that got people on the ground.  (Another contract was used to get enormous generators to provide power to two regions that were going to take longer and had critical needs).  The power company was simultaneously trying to get people on the ground, and their contractor - Whitefish - ended up costing more than they had anticipated.  But part of the problem was that they were competing with the Federal government to get people hired.

In the final analysis - literally, since our bean-counters had to go through the contracts to compare the contracts in an analysis of the appropriateness of the contract - the Whitefish contract was determined to be high in some places, low in others.  All in all, it was not a terrible contract.  It got bad press.  And the work that Whitefish did was, by all accounts, outstanding.  They got moving quickly and got stuff done.

But in the shadow of that media fury about Whitefish, FEMA got worried about our contracts.  Just about the time I showed up, people were getting skittish and were very skeptical of providing more money for contracts.  The term 'pig in a poke' was brought up in a number of meetings.

And then the worst part happened.

4.  A different contracting firm, one who felt like the system was rigged, contested our use of the contract we used to get electricians and equipment here.  The argument was that the way we did it essentially resulted in unfair competition.

Suddenly, all of the contracts we are using to get work done are put on hold.  We got temporary permission to continue, but were not allowed to prepare for the next steps (we had between five and ten chess moves that were blocked by the action).

This week, the judge has agreed with the contracting agency that the competition was not a clean one.  It was acknowledged that we did what we had to do to address the emergency, but if we were to provide a free and open competition, that the contractor who challenged us would have gotten some of the work.  We are re-structuring some of the work to include the contractor that challenged us.

It is going to end up being a good thing.  The contractor we were using has struggled to get their feet under them, and the rate at which they were bringing people onto the island would not have gotten the work done in time.  They simply could not spend the money fast enough.  This modification will get us another set of boots on the island.

But it also had the possibility of grinding all of our work to a halt.  And if that had happened, it would have been a nightmare.  I have made a joke about us having a PR problem, but this would have been awful.

5. During all of this, we are still fighting to get stuff on island.  We have now mostly gotten that problem solved, and manufacturing and delivery has caught up with need.  Or at least it will sometime next week.  In the meantime, we are still opening every storm cellar to see if there are any root vegetables anywhere on the island that we can use to bring the power back on. (We are inventorying a dozen warehouses where those Fairlanes are stored).

We are also having lines assessed.  Impossibly, we still do not have all of the powerlines assessed - 110 days after the storm - to define the damage to the component parts of the system.  Much of the system has been assessed, but all of the stuff we ordered was done on the basis of predictions of how much damage we thought might have been there.  As the transmission line workers and distribution line workers get out in the field, however, they do full assessments, and they have specific requirements for material.  When they do, they ask us for bolts. And crossarms.  And connectors.  If we have them, we hand them over.  If not, we order them.

It would be best if we assessed all the lines first, ordered what we needed, got what we needed, and then got the linemen out there to repair and rebuild the lines.

Unfortunately, in an emergency, there is not time to get a clear assessment.  We had to order stuff before we were sure what stuff we would need. And the result is that now we are playing catch-up as we find more lines that need more stuff than we had guessed.

At the same time, FEMA has asked questions.  In one meeting this week, one of the people I work with said "You just have to make sure that you don't order anything you don't need.  That's what we are here to prevent."

When he said that, I realized that the need to execute the mission had been succeeded by the need to control the expenses.  All along, the intention had been to bring power back to the people of Puerto Rico, and to do it with a mind towards the responsibility we bear to all of the taxpayers.

Nobody is out here looking to promote abuse by ordering unnecessary material. Everyone wants to do the work we are called to do, and bring electricity back to the homes of the people on the island.  And to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

Eventually, we will scale back operations. We - the Corps - will direct the work from either Atlanta or Jacksonville.  We will bring our folks back home, and leave contractors to manage the final lift.  Industry folk will bring the power to the people.  Our contractors will continue to fulfill the terms of their respective contracts.  And one new player will get a piece of the action, and more boots will hit the ground.

The problems we have been facing will be solved, and new ones - different ones - will take their place.  Puerto Rico still faces some rough times ahead.  They will need all of the help we can give them.  But for now, there are people on the ground without power.  And for that reason,

Estamos aqui.  Still.

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