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Arizona Public Service employees return from helping in Puerto Rico

PHOENIX — More Arizona employees who were sent to Puerto Rico over the last month in order to restore electricity to residents have returned to the mainland.

Millions of Puerto Rican residents had been left in the dark — literally — after the U.S. territory’s power grid was almost entirely wiped out after Hurricane Maria hit in September.

In response, Arizona Public Service sent 50 employees to the island in January to help restore power and get them back on their feet.

“Our team is working to support the people of Puerto Rico because it is the right thing to do,” Jacob Tetlow, the company’s vice president of transmission and distribution operations, said at the time.

And on Wednesday, the first wave of employees returned to Phoenix after six weeks of service — “amidst claps, hugs and tears.”

Annie DeGraw, a spokeswoman with Arizona Public Service, said in a statement that another group of employees left for Puerto Rico late Wednesday night to continue with the restoration efforts.

“The people of Puerto Rico continue to be extremely warm and kind, as well as deeply appreciative of the work the crews are doing,” DeGraw said.

Danny Ortega, a construction maintenance supervisor, was one of the employees who returned home on Wednesday. He said while he is glad to be back in Arizona with his wife, “the work is far from over in our area.”

“[There’s] a lack of materials, guys are having to think outside of the box to get the power restored,” Ortega said.

“It’s amazing to see this group of guys solve problems that they never had to deal with before, from material shortages, road conditions, working in the rain for days and days upon end, it was just amazing to see.”

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world. To go and help these people and see them up close and see how it affects them, that’s just so rewarding,” Scott Kahrs, a journeyman lineman, said of his experience.

The current state of Puerto Rico’s electricity

According to The New York Times, hundreds of thousands of residents still remain without power, despite the fact that the hurricane hit more than five months ago.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the federal effort to repair the power grid on the island, the Times reported, and has contracted Fluor Corporation and PowerSecure to help restore power.

Electricity has reportedly been restored to more than 1.1 million people, which is about 86 percent of Puerto Rico’s customers, according to the island’s government-run power utility.

Officials hope to restore electricity to 95 percent of the island by the end of the month, but restoring power in “challenging terrain like Arecibo and Caguas” could take up to the end of May, eight months after the hurricane first hit.

The federal government has since announced that it will begin a responsible withdrawal of its workforce. Nearly 1,000 workers have left the island within the last two weeks.

Among those workers included nine Salt River Project employees, who returned home early February after helping with the restoration efforts.

The U.S. Treasury Department has cut a $4.7 billion disaster relief loan available to the U.S. territory by more than half, and he demanded help from Congress, Puerto Rico’s governor said Wednesday.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said federal officials reduced the amount to $2 billion without providing an explanation nearly five months after Congress approved the loan.

He warned the move puts Puerto Rico in a “dangerous financial dilemma” and that his administration could be forced to cut some essential services as the island continues to struggle after Hurricane Maria.

“Any material interruption to Puerto Rico’s public services will only exacerbate outmigration of its population to the mainland and further deepen and prolong Puerto Rico’s decade-old fiscal and economic crisis,” he said.

Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans fled to the U.S. mainland after the Category 4 storm, which hit as the island was struggling to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt load amid an 11-year recession.

Rossello said it seems the Treasury imposed certain loan restrictions to make it “extremely difficult for Puerto Rico to access these funds when it needs federal assistance the most.” He also said Treasury officials told his administration last week that they do not intend to forgive the loan.

Congress had approved the loan in October to help Puerto Rico recover from the storm, which killed dozens of people and caused up to an estimated $94 billion in damage.

Last week, Puerto Rico’s power company obtained a $300 million emergency loan that will help keep it operating only through late March, according to a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances. The board said it plans to request more loans in upcoming weeks.

It is unclear why the $4.7 billion federal loan was reduced.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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