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.

Lin-Manuel Miranda Returns to Hamilton for Puerto Rico: How to Win Airfare & Tickets!

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Lin-Manuel Miranda is revisiting the part that made him a household name to help the arts in Puerto Rico.

For the first time since leaving the original Broadway cast of the Tony award-winning musical Hamilton in 2016, Miranda, 38, will reprise the role of Alexander Hamilton for 24 performances at the University of Puerto Rico that aim to uplift in the area ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

To coincide with the show, Miranda has co-launched The Flamboyan Arts Fund, dedicated to preserving, amplifying, and sustaining the arts in Puerto Rico. All profits from Hamilton‘s Puerto Rico performances will go towards the fund.

RELATED: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Might Be Headed to the Big Screen — Just Not As You Think

“Time is of the essence,” Miranda says in a video — exclusive to PEOPLE — about the fund.

“It’s a struggle to be an arts organization anywhere, particularly on an island that’s been hurt by one of the worst hurricanes in history.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

“I believe art helps us survive. We can’t wait for Puerto Rico to recover to then support the arts because there is no telling when that will be. We need to support the artists who are out there now. We need to have their backs.”

PEOPLE can exclusively reveal that starting Monday, for a $10 donation to the Flamboyan Arts Fund at Prizeo.com/Ham4PR, one winner and a guest will win VIP tickets to opening night of Hamilton in Puerto Rico. Also included are tickets to the opening night after-party with Miranda and the cast, and a signed and framed photo with him, in addition to roundtrip airfare and hotel accommodations in San Juan.

Multiple other surprise rewards will also be announced throughout the duration of the campaign, which runs until Oct. 29.

Puerto Rico One Year Later: We’re Fighting for Justice and Prosperity

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One year ago, I lived the scariest day of my life.

As the wind blew I could hear things falling and breaking outside. The walls of my (concrete-built) home were vibrating and water was coming in through every single window and door. At the moment I could only think of how to prepare for the worst and to be ready to seek refuge inside a closet or a bathroom.

On September 20, 2017, I was fighting to keep my home and family safe during those long 24 hours that we endured Hurricane Maria. I would have never imagined what the next year would look like.

It has been a year since the impact of Maria, and here in Puerto Rico, there are still families living in the dark, homes without a roof, people who haven’t been able to find a new job after their businesses were destroyed, and people mourning their lost loved ones.

Recovery has been extremely slow — and on other parts of the island, there has been barely any recovery at all. With our communities all but abandoned by the federal government, enduring the past year has done lasting harm to the physical and mental health of thousands of Puerto Ricans.

Some of us are hopeful about this just being a phase that we will soon get through, but many others lose more and more hope daily.

Day After Hurricane Maria. Taken in Bayamón, Puerto Rico

What scares me the most is knowing that Hurricane Maria was just a glimpse of how climate change is affecting the Caribbean, and a warning of what’s to come. Larger and stronger hurricanes will continue to cause deaths, destroy property and displace people, separating families and slowly destroying our culture.

Climate disasters are also an opportunity for disaster capitalism to continue enforcing the colonization dynamics that are already occurring in Puerto Rico. And as if there were not enough issues already, neither the government of Puerto Rico nor the U.S federal government are taking any action to mitigate climate change or prepare for future disasters. This is due in part to a lack of funding and to no initiative whatsoever, in addition to the climate denialism, from the US federal government to protect its colonies — all of them vulnerable islands — from climate change effects.

For the more than 100 years that Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States, the federal government has imposed unjust laws and systems of colonization that have helped create the island’s current debt crisis. That debt crisis has been used to put in place policies that targeted worker and students’ rights and put their well being in the hands of an unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board known as “La Junta.”

With the local government under pressure to pay off its debts to the US, La Junta and the government continue to push brutal austerity measures — slashing funding for our schools, cutting workers’ benefits, and gutting dozens more public programs essential for our island’s recovery — instead of working for the people. And austerity has only gotten more punishing since the hurricane.

September 23, 2017. Bayamón, Puerto Rico

More areas from the public sector are up for sale, more laws are imposed that harm workers and benefit foreign investment, and more resources have been shifted to help the private sector instead of the people needing support most. All of these measures will continue to affect the quality of life of millions of Puerto Ricans if we find ourselves facing another hurricane in the coming years.

And as climate change makes hurricanes like Maria stronger and more frequent, I know that the next hurricane isn’t a question of if, but of when.

There is still a lot to be done in Puerto Rico — not only to recover from the hurricane, but also to free the country of the colonial systems that have long prevented people and our environment from thriving.

Destroyed Apartment Building. Bayamón, Puerto Rico

A year after Maria, we still need to do the long, hard work of building a power grid that relies on renewable energy, making sure people have safe homes, reopening businesses, making safe food and water accessible and making adaptation and mitigation of climate change one of our local priorities.

It is urgent that the US takes real action for Puerto Rico, do its part to fix the problems that it has caused, and treat with equality the millions of people who pay taxes and live in one of the colonies that the US invaded without consulting or being invited.

Puerto Rico deserves a prosperous future and safety, not leftovers from Congress and paper towels being thrown at us.

My family, our neighbors, and our people deserve more than this.

This article originally appeared on 350.org

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

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About author Amira Odeh is a geographer and water resource specialist from Puerto Rico. She is an environmental activist and has worked to reduce plastic pollution, train people into becoming organizers and is helping to reforest Puerto Rico after the hurricanes of 2017. She is an organizer for 350.org‘s Fossil Free campaign.

Utilities Helped Puerto Rico Fix Its Power Grid. Now They Face Hefty Tax Bills.

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Utilities Helped Puerto Rico Fix Its Power Grid. Now They Face Hefty Tax Bills.

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A line crew from the mainland worked to repair power lines near Arecibo, P.R., in February.CreditCreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

By James Glanz and Alejandra Rosa

When nearly the entire power grid of Puerto Rico was knocked out by a pair of ferocious hurricanes last year, utility companies from across the United States sent crews and equipment to help.

It was a power emergency on a scale rarely seen before, and companies spent tens of millions of dollars to mobilize. The utility in Sacramento, Calif., sent 30 workers and a dozen trucks. Ameren, which serves over two million customers in Missouri and Illinois, sent 225 workers. New York dispatched workers on at least five deployments to repair power lines and assess damaged substations. Florida Power & Light sent more than 100 trucks, several tons of equipment and 800 employees, many of whom spent Thanksgiving and the winter holidays working 16-hour days.

Though their costs are expected to be reimbursed by the federal government, the companies were not earning a profit. So it was with astonishment that, over the summer, some of the utility companies that had sent aid crews opened letters from the towns where they had worked in Puerto Rico: bills demanding millions of dollars in license and construction taxes.

Florida Power & Light was given five days to pay the first $2 million, and 30 days for $333,000 more in taxes, fees, penalties and interest. Ameren and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District received bills for nearly $3 million.

“The honor and humanity of your city’s people stands in striking contrast to the inappropriate monetary demands,” the Florida utility’s chief executive, Eric Silagy, wrote in a letter to the mayor of Bayamón.

The Florida executive was not alone in his chagrin. The utilities “each fronted tens of millions of dollars for personnel, equipment, and materials to help restore power in Puerto Rico on a not-for-profit basis,” said Emily Fisher, vice president for law at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group which helped coordinate the agreements under which power companies joined the emergency response. “And the thanks we got from some mayors came in the form of municipal tax bills and punitive fines.”

A year after Hurricane Maria, many homeowners are still living in ruins

So far, about eight cities have forwarded tax notices, including the municipalities of Bayamón, Río Grande and Carolina, near the capital of San Juan. City officials said such assessments are a normal part of doing business in Puerto Rico. In most cases, however, they are charged to companies engaged in profit-making business activity, not utilities making emergency repairs after a natural disaster.

Such taxes are seldom levied on the mainland after an emergency. When the issue came up in New York for companies that provided relief after Hurricane Sandy, the state waived the taxes.

“During Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Nate and Florence, no other local jurisdiction sought to impose local taxes and fees directly on the workers and crews who traveled to make emergency repairs to the grid,” Ms. Fisher said. “It just doesn’t normally happen.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse mainland power companies for their work in Puerto Rico. Donald Caetano, a spokesman for the agency, said that companies that were “savvy enough” to include the taxes in their original contract language could also have the tax bills reimbursed by FEMA by submitting those expenses to Puerto Rico’s public utility, Prepa.

But that would leave federal taxpayers responsible for millions of dollars flowing into municipal coffers in Puerto Rico beyond the repair costs the federal government is already paying.

“The short answer is yes, FEMA could pay that municipal tax,” Mr. Caetano said.

Companies that did not make provisions in their contracts could be “on the hook” for paying the taxes themselves, Mr. Caetano said.

Prepa’s chief financial officer, Nelson Morales, said that further bills could be on the way from any of the 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico.

“It’s possible that a great amount of them will be requesting payment of taxes,” Mr. Morales said. “They are entitled to taxes for services or constructions performed in their jurisdictions.”

Randall Hakes, a senior lawyer at the Sacramento utility, whose crews were in Puerto Rico from January to March, said the work was intended to render aid to millions of Puerto Ricans who in many cases spent months without electricity after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck in September 2017. “We are happy we were able to help, and loved seeing their joy when power was restored,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how they now seek to take advantage of our willingness to lend a hand.”

Both Prepa and FEMA were criticized for waiting more than a month after the hurricanes hit before requesting help from the utilities. Such mutual aid agreements had been struck as a matter of course after recent hurricanes on the mainland, including Harvey, Florence and Sandy.

Adding to their frustration with the taxes, a number of the utilities have not been reimbursed by FEMA for sending their workers and equipment to Puerto Rico in the first place. That will only take place once a careful review of the invoices is concluded, officials said. Mr. Caetano said that about $940 million of $1.8 billion invoiced for the electrical work has been reimbursed so far.

How storms, missteps and an ailing grid left Puerto Rico in the dark

Some analysts with long experience in the substantial economic, legal and cultural differences between Puerto Rico and the mainland said the tax laws on the island should not be taken as an affront, and that negotiations may yield positive results.

The 15-year recession in Puerto Rico has left municipalities eager to collect taxes, said Tómas J. Torres, executive director of the Institute for Competitiveness and Sustainable Economy, a nonprofit in San Juan. He said that linemen from the mainland making much more than their Prepa counterparts could not help but produce an impression that the utilities could easily pay the tax — whether they made profits in Puerto Rico or not.

“They should not be mad,” Mr. Torres said. “This is an issue of communication and understanding Puerto Rican law more than anything else.” He added, “It’s a matter of sitting down at the table and sorting out any argument that they have.”

Omar J. Marrero Díaz, Puerto Rico’s chief recovery officer, appointed by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, said he knew of “seven or eight” municipalities that had sent tax bills. Part of the reason they are desperate for money, he said, is that like the utilities themselves, they are still waiting for FEMA to disburse funds — in this case, most of the $3.7 billion allocated for disaster relief.

“We have been trying to serve as a mediator between the companies and the municipalities,” said Mr. Marrero, adding that some mayors have indicated a willingness to compromise or waive the taxes. “That’s the way we feel, even though we have been complying with the overly bureaucratic process” at FEMA, he said.

On the time frame for payments, Mr. Caetano said, “We trust but verify. The speed of disbursement is driven in a large part by the quickness by which we receive accurate and required paperwork from our partners.”

The New York Times posed queries to several of the cities that sent tax bills and received widely varying responses. The mayor of Carolina was either unavailable or simply refused to comment on the matter. Asked whether the municipality was denying a request for an interview with the mayor, Lourdes Vázquez, the media chief in Carolina, said, “You can phrase it however you want.”

Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera of Bayamón, though, abruptly released a statement with good news for Florida Power & Light. The municipality had determined that companies operating on a nonprofit basis were not subject to the tax, the statement said.

“That’s the case of Florida Power, which is why we’re sending them a notification indicating they should send a copy of the signed contract,” the statement said. “That will automatically exempt them from the payment.”

Ángel B. González Damudt, mayor of Río Grande, said he believes the Sacramento utility profited from its emergency work and was still liable for taxes — an assertion the company’s lawyer, Mr. Hakes, rejected immediately.

“This is ridiculous that they continue to assert we’ve profited in any way by their misfortune,” he said. “We were there to help, and now they’re trying to make a ton of money off our assistance.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: For Their Help In Puerto Rico, They Got Taxed. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Trump Says Puerto Rico Statehood Is an 'Absolute No'

This post was originally published on this site

President Donald Trump said on Monday that he doesn’t support Puerto Rican statehood, harshly condemning the island’s current leadership.

“With the mayor of San Juan as bad as she is… Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing,” Trump said in a pre-recorded interview on Geraldo Rivera’s radio show, “Geraldo in Cleveland.”

Puerto Rico’s House representative, Jenniffer González-Colón, filed a bill earlier this summer that would turn the American territory into the nation’s 51st state by 2021, The Washington Post reports. Currently, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but do not have the right to vote in the general presidential election.

The island has held five non-binding referendums since becoming a U.S. territory in 1898 to determine if its citizens want statehood. The first three showed residents were evenly split while the more recent votes in 2012 and 2017 showed a majority support statehood, but voter-turnout was low in the latest election.

Trump, however, said he is “an absolute no” on statehood due to the current leadership, calling the mayor of San Juan (“whatever her name may be”) “a horror show.”

Hours after the president’s interview, the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, condemned Trump for rejecting the island’s proposed statehood “based on a personal feud with a local mayor.”

“This is an insensitive, disrespectful comment to over 3 million Americans who live in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico,” said Rossello in a statement. “Equality for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico is the biggest civil rights issue in the United States.”

Trump has been particularly critical of Puerto Rican leadership since Hurricane Maria devastated the island last year. He has denied that 3,000 people died due to the storm, as one study said, and argued that aid was “horribly handled” by local representatives. Trump repeated these claims on Monday’s show.

“The local representatives, in particular the mayor of San Juan, was incompetent, and they didn’t know what to do,” he said.

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, however, has said the responsibility lies with Trump. On CNN Thursday, she called the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria “structured negligence” that “allowed Puerto Ricans to die.”

Trump defended his administration Monday, saying he “got things to Puerto Rico that nobody could’ve gotten.” He also claimed that the electricity on the island was “dead for years.”

With “good leadership,” Trump said statehood “certainly could be something they talk about.”