Hurray for the Riff Raff Goes Home to Puerto Rico

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This week, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra is back in Puerto Rico, visiting schools to donate musical instruments for students and getting ready for HFTRR’s island debut at La Respuesta in Santurce (free show, familia, free show). Latino Rebels Radio host Julio Ricardo Varela gave Alynda a call on Monday to talk about her week in Puerto Rico, what it means to be Nuyorican and where HFTRR goes next. And yeah, the convo gets pretty deep, but what would you expect when two Puerto Ricans get together to talk about music, life and neocolonialism?

This week’s podcast closed out with the spectacular “Pa’lante’ single, whose video is gaining attention at film festivals all over the world.

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For Alynda’s first interview with Latino Rebels from 2015, click here.

Featured image by Sarrah Danziger

Congress Probes FEMA For Paying Huge Markups On Puerto Rico Recovery Supplies

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Tim Pearce | Energy Reporter

GOP Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming is pressing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to explain the stiff markups it is paying on supplies and labor to help rebuild Puerto Rico.

Enzi, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, sent a letter to FEMA administrator Brock Long Thursday requesting information on the Tu Hogar Renace program. The program is FEMA-funded and run by the Puerto Rico Department of Housing and has roughly $1.2 billion to dole out to Puerto Ricans for the purpose of helping rebuild their damaged homes. (RELATED: Taxpayers Are Paying Huge Sums To A System Of ‘Middlemen’ In Puerto Rico)

“I am troubled by recent reports that federal disaster-relief money intended to help Puerto Rico residents recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria has gone to pay excessive contractor markups and overhead costs,” Enzi wrote.

“This has led to the Puerto Rico Department of Housing receiving close to 3,900 complaints from program participants,” Enzi added. “While I understand that sending materials to Puerto Rico on tight deadlines and with the island’s infrastructure affects the costs of materials for repairs, I remained concerned that without proper oversight and controls, money intended to assist disaster survivors has and will be wasted.”

The purchase and installation of a typical $50 door would cost about $700 in Puerto Rico. Power generators that cost $800 are being sold for $3,700. Subcontractors repair roofs for about $1.64 a square foot, but FEMA is spending around $4 a square foot by the time all the requisite paperwork is completed, The New York Times reported Monday.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long listens as U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on preparations for hurricane Florence at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

FEMA Administrator Brock Long listens as U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on preparations for hurricane Florence at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Puerto Rico was left severely crippled after Hurricane Maria struck the Island in September 2017. Maria completely destroyed tens of thousands of homes and left hundreds of thousands more with major damage.

The storm and its effects killed approximately 2,975 people, according to a George Washington University study. Most of Puerto Rico lost power and hundreds of thousands were left in the dark for months.

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Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

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Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 1, 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows a toadfish during dive 2 of the 2018 Oceano Profundo expedition, in the deep waters of the U.S. Caribbean. It will take several years before scientists establish whether any new species were discovered, but in the meantime, they will ship all the coral branches, pieces of sponge, brittle starfishes and rocks they collected to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP)

A rarely seen shark embryo. Corals up to 7 feet (2 meters) high. Sponges with sharp edges.

These were among the hundreds of findings reported by U.S. who have wrapped up a 22-day mission exploring waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the deepest dives ever recorded in the region. Guided by other land-based scientists watching live feeds, they collected 89 samples and will now start to analyze them, Daniel Wagner, expedition coordinator with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

“When they tell you, ‘I’ve never seen that before,’ it’s a good indication that it’s a new species or something that’s new to this region,” he said.

It will take several years for scientists to establish whether any were discovered, but in the meantime, they will ship all the coral branches, pieces of sponge, brittle starfish and rocks they collected to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Wagner said.

Scientists aboard the 224-foot (68-meter) Okeanos Explorer also identified some 30 species of fish, including some in areas where previously they hadn’t been spotted. These include commercially popular fish such as snappers and groupers, which were seen about 100 meters (330 feet) deeper than reported to exist.

Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 15, 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows a shark embryo during dive 15 of the Okeanos Explorer expeditions, west of the Desecheo Island, an archipelago of Puerto Rico. Scientists wrapped up a 22-day mission Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, where they explored waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the deepest dives ever recorded in the region. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP) “That’s a great thing,” Wagner said.

In addition, they mapped geological features up to 3 miles (5,000 meters) deep, covering an area close to 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles), he said.

The 19 dives performed by remotely operated vehicles over 145 hours were streamed live and drew a lot of online attention. One especially popular video was that of a catshark embryo attached to a branch some 800 deep near an uninhabited island off Puerto Rico’s west coast.

Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 6, 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows a remotely operated vehicle, ROV, recording a shark from the Hexanchidae family in its habitat during Dive 6 of the 2018 Oceano Profundo expedition, in the deep waters of the U.S. Caribbean. The ROV’s allow the NOAA to explore much deeper depths that have remained largely unexplored in the region as well as to get high-resolution imagery. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, via AP)

Overall, the ecosystems appeared healthy, although scientists also saw pieces of trash on a few dives and the occasional fishing line, he added.

“It’s a sad thing, but a healthy reminder that our things go down to the deep sea,” he said.

The sites explored were chosen from a list of 80 submitted by scientists worldwide, including the location of a 1918 earthquake that generated a tsunami, killing more than 100 people in Puerto Rico.

Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows a swimming sea cucumber, Enypniastes eximia, sometimes referred to as the “headless chicken monster,” during a 2018 Oceano Profundo deep dive expedition, in the waters of the U.S. Caribbean. The Enypniastes is encountered widely around the world with records from the Gulf of Mexico, Tropical Atlantic, East Atlantic, New Zealand, and the Southern Ocean. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, via AP)

Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 1, 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows an octocoral or sea fan with many brittle star associates during dive 2 of the 2018 Oceano Profundo expedition, in the deep waters of the U.S. Caribbean. Scientists, who wrapped up 22-day mission in Caribbean waters Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, believe they might have found several new species, although it will take several years to confirm. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP)

Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 5, 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows a ceriantharian, also known as tube-dwelling anemone during dive 5 of the 2018 Oceano Profundo expedition, in the deep waters of the U.S. Caribbean. Overall, the ecosystems appeared healthy according to the scientists, although they also saw pieces of trash on a few dives and the occasional fishing line. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP)

Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 11, 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows a mysterious six-rayed starfish during dive 11 of the 2018 Oceano Profundo expedition, on a landslide feature north of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. Scientists aboard the 224-foot Okeanos Explorer also identified some 30 species of fish, including some in areas previously not spotted. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, via AP)

Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 1, 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows a sea fan during dive 2 of the 2018 Oceano Profundo expedition, in the deep waters of the U.S. Caribbean. Corals up to seven feet high were among the hundreds of findings reported by U.S. scientists who have wrapped up a 22-day mission Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, exploring waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the deepest dives ever recorded in the region. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP)

Scientists wind up deep-water probes in Caribbean waters

This Nov. 1, 2018 handout photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, shows a Pancake urchin during dive 2 of the 2018 Oceano Profundo expedition, in the deep waters of the U.S. Caribbean. 19 dives were performed by remotely operated vehicles over 145 hours and were streamed live. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP)

Explore further: Scientists find possible new species in Caribbean waters

Scientists work to save wild Puerto Rican parrot after Maria

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Updated

EL YUNQUE, Puerto Rico (AP) — Biologists are trying to save the last of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots after more than half the population of the bright green birds with turquoise-tipped wings disappeared when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and destroyed their habitat and food sources.

In the tropical forest of El Yunque, only two of the 56 wild birds that once lived there survived the Category 4 storm that pummeled the U.S. territory in September 2017. Meanwhile, only 4 of 31 wild birds in a forest in the western town of Maricao survived, along with 75 out of 134 wild parrots living in the Rio Abajo forest in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, scientists said.

And while several dozen new parrots have been born in captivity and in the wild since Maria, the species is still in danger, according to scientists.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Gustavo Olivieri, parrot recovery program coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources.

Federal and local scientists will meet next month to debate how best to revive a species that numbered more than 1 million in the 1800s but dwindled to 13 birds during the 1970s after decades of forest clearing.

The U.S. and Puerto Rican governments launched a program in 1972 that eventually led to the creation of three breeding centers. Just weeks before Maria hit, scientists reported 56 wild birds at El Yunque, the highest since the program was launched.

But the population decline is now especially worrisome because the parrots that vanished from El Yunque were some of the last remaining wild ones, said Marisel Lopez, who oversees the parrot recovery program at El Yunque for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“It was devastating. After so many years of having worked on this project…,” she stopped talking and sighed.

The Puerto Rican Amazon is Puerto Rico’s only remaining native parrot and is one of roughly 30 species of Amazon parrots found in the Americas. The red-foreheaded birds grow to nearly a foot in length, are known for their secrecy and usually mate for life, reproducing once a year.

More than 460 birds remain captive at the breeding centers in El Yunque and Rio Abajo forests, but scientists have not released any of them since Hurricane Maria. A third breeding center in a forest in the western rural town of Maricao has not operated since the storm. Scientists are now trying to determine the best way to prepare the parrots for release since there are such few birds in the wild they can interact with, and whether Puerto Rico’s damaged forests can sustain them.

One proposal scientists will consider is whether to capture some of the remaining wild parrots in the Rio Abajo forest and place them in the same cage as birds that will be released to the wild, so they can learn to emulate their social behavior to ensure their survival, said Jafet Velez, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Scientists are tentatively planning to release 20 birds next year in Rio Abajo.

Another proposal is to release more parrots in Maricao, which was not as heavily damaged by Maria.

“Our priority now is not reproduction…it’s to start releasing them,” Lopez said, adding that breeding centers can hold only so many parrots.

But first, scientists need to make sure the forests can offer food and safe shelter.

Jessica Ilse, a forest biologist at el Yunque for the U.S. Forest Service, said scientists are collecting data about the amount of fruit falling from trees and the number of leaves shed. She said the canopy still has not grown back since Maria and warned that invasive species have taken root since more sunlight now shines through. Ilse said that many of the large trees where parrots used to nest are now gone and noted that it took 14 months for El Yunque’s canopy to close after Hurricane Hugo hit Puerto Rico in 1989 as a Category 3 storm.

Scientists also are now collecting new data on the number of predators at El Yunque, including el guaraguao, a red-tailed hawk that hunts Puerto Rico parrots. Without a canopy and proper camouflage, wild parrots have become an easy target.

Ilse said local and federal scientists plan to help the forest recover through planting. By the end of November, they expect to have a map detailing the most damaged areas in El Yunque and a list of tree species they can plant that are more resistant to hurricanes.

“People keep asking us, ‘How long is it going to take?'” Ilse said.

But scientists don’t know, she added.

“The damage is more extensive than (hurricanes) Hugo and Georges…It’s been a complete change to the ecosystem.”

Going to Dominican Republic? Come to Puerto Rico Instead!

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When I lived in Mongolia, nobody came to visit. When I lived in Montana, I might as well have been living in Mongolia. Same circumstances – no visitors. Now that I moved to Puerto Rico, I expected visitors to be banging on my door and I pretending not to be home. That has not been the case. Thus far, only Uncle Charlie has come for a weekend of booze, beach, and golf. Many that do not come tell me that it’s because Puerto Rico does not have electricity and that it is still not up and running after Hurricane Maria. Obviously, that is not true. I live here and can testify that life is good.

Inexplicably, on more than one occasion, people I know have made the trip down to the Caribbean to visit our neighbor next door, the Dominican Republic, instead of coming here. Although PR is more expensive when it comes to food and drink, everything that DR has, PR has as well. The only two differences are: 1) DR does a much better job of marketing. 2) TPOL lives in PR, which, depending on your love/hate of the blog, is a reason to choose one over the other. For those that still think PR has not recovered, take a look at these photos from my IG account and then book your flight here.

PR, not far from your hometown.

FBI agents raid San Juan government offices as part of investigation into fraud, corruption

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FBI agents this week raided the municipal offices in San Juan, Puerto Rico – rooting through documents and seizing digital records as part of a widespread investigation into fraud and obstruction of justice charges tied to the city government.

San Juan’s purchasing division was the target of the raid. And while FBI special agent Douglas Leff did not implicate Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz in the raid, he did tell local media that “we are going to follow the investigation where it leads us.”

Cruz tweeted Tuesday that she has instructed city officials to cooperate with federal authorities and said, “If someone has done something wrong, they should undergo due process and face the consequences of their actions.”

On Tuesday, more than two dozen agents entered the city’s Municipal Tower carrying briefcases, cameras and electronic equipment, Puerto Rican news agency El Nuevo Dia first reported.

Federal agents raided the third, fourth, 14th and 15th floors of the building, looking for documents related to corruption inside San Juan’s purchasing and contracting departments.

The raid was sparked by an anonymous tip called into the comptroller’s office over how the mayor’s office awards government contracts – specifically, a $4.7 million deal with construction company BR Solutions.

El Nuevo Dia claims the company is owned by a businessman who has made questionable political donations to several Puerto Rican politicians.

The raid comes a month after President Trump hinted at corruption in the U.S. territory and caused an uproar after questioning the number of people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria.

The bad blood between the two leaders often plays out on social media. Trump has called out Cruz’s management style while Cruz has hammered Trump on his response after Maria.

Earlier this year, local news outlets reported Cruz’s administration was being investigated for allegedly obstructing critical supplies from reaching victims of Hurricane Maria- a category-4 storm that leveled much of the tiny U.S. territory more than a year ago.

The FBI reportedly launched the investigation following a February lawsuit filed by Yadira Molina, the former director of procurement. Molina claims she was retaliated against for reporting “alleged irregular acts” to the local comptroller.

The report says Molina claims she was punished for reporting on the allegedly rigged system and that she was blocked from her right “to report wrongdoing in her capacity as a private citizen, not as a public employee.”

Shortly after Cruz became mayor, Molina claims a supply company was granted “preferred supplier” status which paid them more than three times what regular suppliers made. She also alleges that other city officials engaged in a corrupt scheme to steer business the preferred supplier’s way.

Concerns about Cruz are not new. There has been a growing backlash from frustrated residents who say they feel forgotten and charge the mayor’s personal political ambitions are coming at the expense of the very people she’s supposed to be representing.

“On February 21, Molina sued the city council after reporting alleged acts of corruption in the shopping division in the town hall under the administration of Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto,” according to El Vocero de Puerto Rico.

Multiple calls to the Department of Justice’s San Juan field office were not returned.

Puerto Rico bets on a coffee comeback

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Thousands of rural families in Puerto Rico’s rugged central mountains want to rebuild their traditional coffee economy after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. And one year on, they’re betting on a dedicated group of millennials to get the job done, writes Tom Laffay.

If they don’t succeed, it could mark the end of coffee in Puerto Rico, forcing these last families to leave the island for good.

Puerto Rican coffee farmers lost an estimated 85% of their crops, or some 18 million coffee trees valued at $60m (£46m), and many have lost their homes in the wake of hurricanes Irma and María.

Not only an iconic part of Puerto Rican identity, coffee has been an economic engine that creates direct and indirect jobs in a US territory where so many young people leave because of a lack of jobs.

The coffee farmer

“I lost practically the whole farm due to María,” says Luis “Nardo” Ramirez. But as soon as it cleared, we went back to work, and I found the workers to do it. The people were without their homes, without their roads, so there was a necessity to work.”

“Coffee is the best crop we produce, but due to the bad weather people have left it. In Las Indieras there used to be 80 big producers, now there are only five big farms left.”

The worker

On average, 80% of coffee trees were destroyed by Hurricane María.

“This is all that María left,” says this worker as he loads coffee plants from a nursery subsidised by the government into a truck headed for a local farm.

The three generations

“There are 21 municipalities in Puerto Rico whose economies are driven by the coffee industry. And if we permit the industry to disappear, this region is going to be even poorer than it already is,” says Wilfredo “Junny” Ruiz Feliciano.

“It’s not all San Juan, it’s not all Guaynabo. María affected the people of the central region the most. We need a more aggressive plan to revitalize the industry and the region.”

Along with Junny’s father, they are four generations of coffee farmers, including the youngest whom they hope will carry on their business one day.

After Hurricane María their staff was reduced from 20 employees to only four and they went from cultivating 32 hectares to only eight.

They call for an aggressive plan sponsored by the government to help farmers get back up and running and believe in the region’s people to bring the coffee industry back.

The rescue team

ConPRometidos is an NGO run by millennials with a mission to create a stable, productive, and self-sufficient Puerto Rico, harnessing the energy, ideas and finances of the island’s young diaspora.

It began its work about six years ago in tapping into the know-how of young exiles in order to help address some of the problems they had left behind.

The hurricanes presented a new challenge but the plight of the coffee farmers caught the group’s eye. They are soliciting a $3m grant from the Unidos por Puerto Rico Foundation to fund a five-year, island-wide project that aims to provide much needed relief to the island’s coffee sector.

The island can produce 240,000 quintales (100lb) of coffee but is only hitting 40,000, says the organisation’s 30-year-old co-founder Isabel Rullán, which means it’s importing coffee unnecessarily.

Increasing production could bring about $65m dollars to the poor mountain regions, she says.

“The coffee industry is the backbone of 22 municipalities of the island. That’s what they do, they farm coffee. So really, we’re talking about improving the quality of life for 2,000 families.”

The military veteran

After thousands of people were driven off the island by the hurricane, there is a movement to stem the flow of labour and encourage people to stay.

“I’m part of this rebirth of coffee here because I grew up in the coffee culture,” says Krys Rodriguez, a retired Army sergeant major who runs a farm near the Maricao coffee fields where she grew up, called Hacienda Doña Patria.

“I was born on a coffee farm and I always wanted to have my own farm because I’m passionate about it. I always wanted my own brand of coffee.”

She is part of a group trying to educate local people in how to make a success of farming.

“I’m convinced that the coffee industry here has a future. But it has to return to the small family [farms], where you, your wife and your kids can harvest and maybe even your neighbour.”


More on Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria

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José Andrés Fed 3 Million People in Puerto Rico, But Wishes It Had Been More

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When I sit down with chef José Andrés and his co-author Richard Wolffe at a restaurant in lower Manhattan’s Brookfield Place, Andrés seems a little weary. Just a few days prior, the pair’s book, We Fed An Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, debuted, and it’s been a whirlwind of press interviews and promotional stops. He’s still his usual genial self, though. He sees my camera sitting on the banquette next to me, reaches over, and proceeds to take a series of selfies, then sets the camera back down and folds his hands on the table as if to say he’s now ready for seriousness, for my first question. “I’m going to use those in this story—you know that, right?” I ask. “Well, of course, that’s why I took them for you,” he says. And so we’re off.

It’s been just over a year since Hurricane Maria made landfall and ravaged the island of Puerto Rico for 16 straight hours. In the immediate aftermath, Andrés’ non-profit, World Central Kitchen, sent a team to help feed anyone they could reach. What happened next became the stuff of internet virality and nothing short of a social movement. In the end, WCK activated over twenty thousand local volunteers all across the island, to prepare 3.7 million meals. What Andrés experienced in Puerto Rico, working with massive NGOs like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself, taught the chef a lot about how the traditional approach to humanitarian disaster relief moves like a rusty old robot. As he and Wolffe detail in their book, they observed this apparatus to be inflexible, with dangerously slow reflexes. What follows are his thoughts and recollections when we asked them both to reflect on those lessons.

On the power of social media to organize without traditional means of communication:

José Andrés: We saw one restaurant that was open and serving roast chicken, so we stopped. It was a big line. But this was great because, there were not a lot of places that were open. And this happened a few weeks later, in Morovís. And there many things happened. We saw the line for the roast chicken, could smell the smell, and we could see that things were slowly coming back. To have been able to receive a shipment of chicken, even with no cell [towers]—things were happening. We heard a group of teachers that were eating in that restaurant, they were saying that they were cooking from their [school’s] kitchen, serving some local people. That for me was very important because early in the days [on the island], we did a video with the secretary of education … saying, “If you’re in a kitchen and you’re listening to this message—cook! Open your kitchen and cook and feed anybody you can nearby.” … Sometimes because they saw that, and sometimes because somebody was already taking the initiative because they couldn’t wait at home. And that was very good news.

On the importance of intelligence gathering as part of a massive feeding operation:

Richard Wolffe: [Andrés] would say at the time, ‘the food is not just food, right?’ [Distributing] it is a way to get intelligence about what’s going on. So rather than staying locked in the bunker of the convention center [in San Juan] where all the government workers were, you have to get out. And so, this guy, because of who he is, we’d stop in, say, the simplest dive bars, and just talk to people. Or he’d see a restaurant and be like, “Oh, how’s it going? What have you got?”

Andrés: You know, learning on the road.

Wolffe: Where are people hungry? You know, the women at the chicken place where it turned out they were cooking in schools—no one at central command knew if that area was being served. So you have to get out there, you have to talk to people. And also, it spoke to this idea that we weren’t there permanently, right? … The point was to wind it down quickly.

On what they learned in Puerto Rico that helped them better prepare to serve in North Carolina during Hurricane Florence:

Andrés: What I learned was: be ready. If you’re ready, you can adapt and regroup. The WCK team … moved into Wilmington and Raleigh, North Carolina four days before [the storm hit]. And the kitchens were already functioning before the hurricane came, feeding first responders. … Everybody is trying to be safe, the hurricane’s coming, people are leaving, people are nervous. Somebody has to come from outside and be like what we are—food first responders. And take care of them while the locals are trying to take care of themselves and their families. I take care of my team, and we take care of the first responders. And we were bunkered in a good place, you know, we’ve done this before. Our job is not totally without risks. We’re going into it knowingly. Like a fireman. Some people might say, “Why do you put your guys in danger to feed people?” Sometimes, the places you go have risks. We go to the places at the heart of it. That’s what we do.

What we did differently was: we were there before [the storm]. We had supplied for five kitchens already, we knew the kitchens, we had a refrigerator truck full of food, generators, gas. That’s what we learned. Not for one kitchen—for two, for three, for four. That’s something I’m very proud of. And it was all supported by the local community—local chefs, local food distributors.

On turning the traditional wisdom of food relief efforts on its head:

Andrés: If you are an outsider, and you come, and you have to learn the whole entire system—cities are fascinating, and they have a way of working. … It’s something that requires a lot of time and years. But when you come and you’re serving the local community, and you partner with the community leaders and you work as one, you are already accessing information by working with them that will make you successful would take you months or years to learn. So that’s what we are getting very quick at. Not like we are masters at it. They are masters—sometimes they don’t realize. I would say, “Shit, I wish we had a bakery for bread,” and someone says, “oh there’s a bakery down the road, and I know the owner.” Good! Go talk to the guy, now! Why is the bakery closed? They don’t have a generator. Okay! Let’s get you a generator! That’s why it was so important for us to learn in North Carolina to arrive early and work with the local community, not impose from the outside.

Wolffe: That was a radical change from traditional disaster relief. You come in, you bring everything with you, you spend literally millions— millions of dollars on MREs produced over here—which is fine. But wouldn’t it be better if you spent the money in the local community? That’s a radical change—I mean, it sounds haphazard and it sort of is, that’s the adaptability [Andrés] brings to it. The mindset of, “We’re going to fly everything in because we’re the good-functioning, outside, civilized outsiders, and you are the ‘natives’ about to go crazy,”—that’s the mentality of [traditional relief efforts]. To say we are going to trust local intelligence, stand up a local economy, spend the money wisely—it should be pretty basic, but it’s not. It’s not what happens. Everything comes from outside.

On the semantics of relief aid and being a small NGO:

Andrés: [The Red Cross was] paying us for the meals delivered to the shelters that they ran [in California during the 2018 wildfires]—maybe I would not say “paying,” but “contributing” to the cost of our functioning. But the terminology to me is very important. Because it’s more than semantics. You are contributing to the work that we are doing because you are raising money that you cannot even know how to spend, and you are putting that money at the service of the American people. Even if its not through “Red Cross” specifically, because you have the bigger fundraising arm. …The semantics for me are very important, because otherwise people don’t understand. It is not about getting the contracts for the sake of getting the money, the contracts, I just wanted to feed people.

On how it feels to hear the Trump administration deny the staggering death tolls estimated for Puerto Rico:

Andrés: I think it shows the total lack of empathy of this leader that we have. I think leadership is 51 percent empathy. With empathy, you can gain the hearts of anybody, if you mean business. By not recognizing the number—compared to Carolina, what, we have hourly death tolls. Hourly. And you may say, “Well the Puerto Rican government failed.” Sure, they were destroyed! They had no communications. It was not all their fault. … Sixteen hours on the island—entered as a hurricane, left as a hurricane. I’m sure it was more than forty dead. I’m sure it was more than a hundred. …They fail Puerto Rico in not recognizing the number. You just took away the reaction and the response that was supposed to be coming from the federal government. This so-called “this was nothing compared to Katrina” approach. I’m sure [Trump’s] lack of empathy and leadership made many people die who shouldn’t have.

On what he wishes they could have done better:

Andrés: If I was the Red Cross, I would put their teams [under WCK control]. I would make better use of them. And with the resources that they have, I could have done so much more.

Did I ever dream that maybe the governor officially put me in charge of all feeding operations? Yeah. I mean it. When I think about it now, yeah, I wish they had. More people would have been eating faster, water would get out there, we would be hiring people locally, we will activate the economy in the process of helping people. …The money would have stayed in the island, to bring it back. That’s the dream that I had. So I failed. Because we only did three million meals.

MUNCHIES: Oh chef, I don’t think anybody thinks you failed.

Andrés: I wish I did ten or twenty, or the thirty million meals that FEMA requested. Because they knew that was the need.

Whitefish Energy gets US contracts after Puerto Rico ouster

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A year after losing a $300 million no-bid contract to restore Puerto Rico’s hurricane-shattered electric grid, Whitefish Energy Holdings has quietly been seeking and winning U.S. government contracts.

Founded in 2015 in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tiny Montana hometown, Whitefish had just two employees when Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017. The company was ousted weeks later by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority amid concerns about the slow pace of recovery and eyebrow-raising charges that included electrical linemen hired at a rate of more than $300 per hour.

Records show that in June Whitefish won a $225,000 job from the Interior Department to perform electrical work at three fish hatcheries in the state of Washington. In September, the Energy Department awarded Whitefish a more than $1 million contract to build power transmission lines in Missouri and Arkansas.

The Interior Department denied this week that Zinke, a former Montana congressman, played any role in the contract award. The department acknowledged last year that Zinke knows Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski and that the secretary’s son had a summer job at one of the company’s construction sites.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire said the contract was administered at the regional level “per our standard policies and procedures.”

“It was a competitive contract awarded on the basis of the lowest cost, technically acceptable bid,” Shire said.

The Energy Department also said its contract awarded to Whitefish by the federal Southwestern Power Administration was routine.

“Prior to the awarding of the contract, SWPA conducted all necessary and proper due diligence,” said Elizabeth Nielsen, spokeswoman for the Southwestern Power Administration. “The review did not produce any concerns that would prevent SWPA from awarding the contract to Whitefish, the lowest bidder.”

Records show the Energy Department previously awarded Whitefish similar construction contracts in 2016 and 2017 totaling about $1.5 million.

After Whitefish’s ouster following the hurricane, members of Congress from both parties excoriated Puerto Rican officials over their handling of the $300 million contract, which they said led to outsized profits for the company. The head of the island’s power authority was forced to resign.

The company on Tuesday defended its record.

“Whitefish Energy was the first to arrive on the island … for what was immediately clear would be a daunting task,” said Dan Wilson, a company spokesman. “We are grateful that the accurate record of our work in Puerto Rico is coming to light, even as our hearts remain with those on the island who are still struggling.”

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Follow Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck

Renewable energy for Puerto Rico

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Puerto Rico is not prepared for another hurricane. A year ago, Hurricane María obliterated the island’s electric grid, leading to the longest power outage in U.S. history. This disrupted medical care for thousands and contributed to an estimated 2975 deaths. The hurricane caused over $90 billion in damage for an island already in economic crisis. Although authorities claim that power was restored completely, some residents still lack electricity. Despite recovery efforts, the continued vulnerability of the energy infrastructure threatens Puerto Rico’s future. But disruptions create possibilities for change. Hurricane María brought an opportunity to move away from a fossil fuel–dominant system and establish instead a decentralized system that generates energy with clean and renewable sources. This is the path that will bring resilience to Puerto Rico.

PHOTO: DENNIS M. RIVERA PICHARDO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

“…moving away from dependency on imported fossil fuels should be the guiding vision.”

Puerto Rico is representative of the Caribbean islands that rely heavily on fossil fuels for electric power; 98% of its electricity comes from imported fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), whereas only 2% comes from renewable sources (solar, wind, or hydroelectric). The distribution of 6023 MW is challenging, requiring thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines over the island’s steep topography. This makes the island’s centralized electrical grid vulnerable to hurricanes that are predicted to increase in severity because of climate change.

In Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean, where sun, wind, water, and biomass are abundant sources of renewable energy, there is no need to rely on fossil fuel technology. Unfortunately, the government of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency have been making decisions about the local power authority that are restoring the energy system to what it was before Hurricane María hit, perpetuating fossil fuel reliance.

Despite these decisions, a transformation has begun in communities across Puerto Rico. For example, in the mountain municipality of Adjuntas, local initiatives headed by Casa Pueblo, a self-reliant nonprofit community organization, has increased the installation of solar energy systems. Fortunately, the solar power–based infrastructure of Casa Pueblo was not affected by the hurricane, allowing Adjuntas to serve as the organization’s center of operations for immediate local and regional response after the hurricane. Adjuntas became an oasis of power, where people got immediate assistance. Analog solar-based energy systems were designed and installed by Casa Pueblo to supply the needs of numerous entities in the community: medical equipment, such as peritoneal dialysis for homes with patients; a radio transmitter for a community radio station; and equipment for hardware stores, minimarkets, restaurants, and other businesses. Around the island, other examples of off-the-grid local energy production reflect community resilience grounded in projects that foster renewable energy. They include a solar microgrid in Orocovis, multiple community aqueducts, and sustainable farms. These new energy systems are changing the energy landscape of the municipality. But the majority of rural communities is still in need of sustained help.

At this juncture, when the opportunity to build a sustainable and resilient electrical system presents itself, moving away from dependency on imported fossil fuels should be the guiding vision. Puerto Rico must embrace the renewable endogenous sources that abound on the island and build robust microgrids powered by solar and wind, install hybrid systems (such as biomass biodigesters), and create intelligent networks that can increase the resilience of the island. The Puerto Rican government and U.S. Congress should use Hurricane María as a turning point for pushing Puerto Rico toward using 100% renewable energy rather than a platform to plant generators across the island. The Fiscal Plans approved and certified by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, created by Congress in 2016, should be amended to pursue this vision of sustainable development based on renewable energy.