Now That Whitefish Is Out Of Puerto Rico, New York & Florida Are Stepping In

by Seth Millstein

Puerto Rico's state-owned utilities company, PREPA, announced Sunday that it has canceled its contract with Whitefish Energy, which had been contracted to rebuild the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The Montana-based energy firm's $300 million contract with the government had been criticized for a number of concerning reasons, but without a contract, the island's recovery efforts are in temporary limbo. So, here's what's next for Puerto Rico now that Whitefish is out of the picture.

In the immediate short term, Puerto Rico will be soliciting clean-up help from Florida and New York by requesting mutual aid agreements with the two U.S. states, according to Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rosselló. "I have given instructions to immediately proceed with the necessary coordination with the states of Florida and New York, in order for brigades and equipment to arrive on the island," Rosselló said in a statement. "At the moment, PREPA and its contractors have 404 brigades working on the island, while the [United States Army Corps of Engineers] has seven." Rosselló added that his administration aims to have "over 1,000 brigades in Puerto Rico by November 8."

New York in particular looks poised to play an especially big role in rebuilding Puerto Rico. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who's been harshly critical of the Trump administration's response to Hurricane Maria, has already traveled to Puerto Rico twice to survey the rebuilding efforts, bringing crew members from the New York Power Authority to help PREPA assess the damage to the island's power grid.

Cuomo also pledged to give $1 million from the Empire State Clean Water Fund to provide water filtration systems for the island, and has assembled a 28-person tactical team of engineers and other energy specialists, which will be deployed to Puerto Rico in November to help PREPA fix the island's power grid.

"To be here five weeks later and people still don't have power, people still don't have water, the results speak for themselves," Cuomo said during one of his visits. "It's unacceptable. It's inadequate. It's a life-and-death situation." It's unclear what resources Florida's government is providing Puerto Rico for its post-Maria clean-up effort.

As Puerto Rico is being rebuilt, U.S. officials will be investigating the circumstances surrounding the Whitefish contract. After conducting a preliminary review, FEMA announced Friday that it "has significant concerns with how PREPA procured this contract and has not confirmed whether the contract prices are reasonable," and is currently working with PREPA to "obtain information about the contract and contracting process." The Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General is also investigating the Whitefish contract, as has multiple congressional committees.

According to PREPA CEO Richard Ramos, Whitefish secured the bid to rebuild Puerto Rico in part because it didn't ask for any cash upfront. But the firm quickly drew controversy for several reasons.

The two-year-old Montana company only had two full-time employees when it was contracted by PREPA, and hadn't handled any projects remotely as big as the one it was assigned in Puerto Rico. In addition, its contract with PREPA contained an unusual clause that forbids any governmental bodies from auditing the costs of its work in Puerto Rico. When San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz accused the company of being insufficiently transparent, Whitefish responded by threatening to pull its workers from the island entirely, a response that prompted outrage from locals and, ultimately, an apology from Whitefish.

Some also raised their eyebrows at a connection between Whitefish and the Trump administration: The company's founder, Andy Techmanski, is from the same small town as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Zinke's son once worked for Whitefish. Techmanski says that he reached out to Zinke as the rebuilding efforts were beginning; Zinke, however, says that he didn't respond, and moreover, has strenuously denied playing any role in securing the contract for Whitefish.

Before closing up shop on the island, Whitefish will wrap up work on two transmission lines that it had already started repairing, Ramos said. Until another contract is secured, it will be up to states like New York and Florida to aid in the recovery effort.