A top FEMA official says Whitefish Energy ‘did a good job’ in Puerto Rico

In this Sept. 20, 2017, photo, power lines are down in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
In this Sept. 20, 2017, photo, power lines are down in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit the island. AP

When a tiny Montana-based company secured a $300 million no-bid contract to restore power in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was quick to distance itself from the ensuing backlash.

But one top FEMA official apparently didn’t get the memo.

FEMA Region 9 Deputy Administrator Ahsha Tribble praised Whitefish Energy’s work in Puerto Rico during a Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board meeting in New York on Feb. 1, according to video obtained by the Miami Herald.

“Without getting kicked from my attorney, Whitefish was there early,” Tribble said. “They did a good job. They took a risk and that risk is still being weighed.”

Tribble’s remarks came months after Whitefish’s contract was terminated by the Puerto Rican government after it was discovered that the Montana company billed the Puerto Rican public power company PREPA $319 an hour for power restoration work by linemen. Tribble is part of a FEMA team tasked with restoring Puerto Rico’s power grid.

Tribble’s comments are in contrast to those of FEMA administrator Brock Long, who told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs in October that his agency wasn’t aware of the Whitefish contract when it was signed, and FEMA likely wouldn’t have approved it.

“We were notified several weeks after the fact,” Long said. “There’s no lawyer inside FEMA that would have ever agreed to the language that was in that contract.”

The Puerto Rican government canceled the Whitefish contract on Oct. 29, about two weeks after it was awarded, after extensive media reports on Whitefish’s personal ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke along with revelations that the company’s rates — paid for by taxpayers — were far above normal for emergency electrical work.

A FEMA spokesperson did not return a request for comment on Tribble’s remarks. A spokesperson for Whitefish did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s been a challenge for the last 128 days that we’ve been there, but I also want to thank people who took a risk to be there in the beginning,” Tribble said before praising Whitefish. “This is different, it’s complex and the elephant in the room. ... So there was a challenge to get people there in the beginning.”

She then went on to praise a number of entities involved in electrical work, including Whitefish.

Despite intense criticism, Whitefish said it completed vital work in the days after Maria wiped out Puerto Rico’s power grid.

“While a number of federal agencies and other contractors eventually joined in the power restoration effort, Whitefish Energy and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority [PREPA] were initially the only parties on the ground making repairs,” Whitefish said in a statement after its work in Puerto Rico finished in November. “Over the course of two months, Whitefish Energy brought more than 550 crew members and 600 pieces of heavy equipment to the island, overcoming early logistics and transportation challenges to get both manpower and support services to Puerto Rico.”

More than 400,000 Puerto Ricans still don’t have power, according to government status reports. The U.S. Senate agreed to spend $2 billion to repair Puerto Rico’s power grid as part of a budget deal on Wednesday, though the sum falls far short of the $17.8 billion requested by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to rebuild the grid.

“We’re still learning what needs to be done,” Tribble said.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty