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WASHINGTON — Puerto Rico suffered a setback in its attempt to restore electricity to the island when a substation failed early Sunday, leaving some residents of the capital without power and renewing political bickering.
"We had a setback here with one of the generation plants here, showcasing how fragile the energy system in Puerto Rico is," Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in an interview with MSNBC.
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Hurricane Maria plunged most of Puerto Rico into darkness when it hit more than two weeks ago, ravaging the U.S. territory's already-dilapidated energy system. Rosselló told NBC News on Sunday that 38 of the 66 people confirmed to have been killed in the storm died in Puerto Rico.
The substation failure dropped the share of San Juan residents with power through the electrical grid from almost 12 percent to about 7 percent. Rosselló said the station would be operational again Sunday night.
The failure prompted a series of tweets from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who catapulted Puerto Rico's post-hurricane misery into the world's consciousness when she criticized the sluggishness of the federal response.
In her tweets, the mayor said two and then four patients had to be transferred from the hospital because of the power failure. She said the hospital asked for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but got none.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long responded to the criticism on ABC's "This Week," saying: "We filtered out the mayor a long time ago. We don't have time for the political noise."
Long said that as progress is made on the electrical grid, thunderstorms knock it out. He said that FEMA monitors Puerto Rico's hospitals daily and that if there is a power failure — which has happened twice — critical patients are evacuated by Life Flight to the USNS Comfort, the Navy hospital ship docked at Puerto Rico. Five patients were transported by air ambulance to the ship on Wednesday, according to Navy News.
Marcos Águila, executive director and chief executive of Hospital Pavia Santurce, in San Juan, told NBC News on Sunday that his hospital lost power about 1 a.m. and had to revert to its diesel-powered generators. Power was restored about 10 a.m., Águila said in a text from Puerto Rico.
"We can't keep rebuilding the grid. It won't be resilient," Rosselló said at a news conference Sunday in Puerto Rico.
He said the territory was pleading with Congress to give it the flexibility to design and build a "smart" grid or it will be left with a vulnerable power system when the next storm hits, which will have to be rebuilt once more.
The territory is asking for about $4.6 billion in immediate relief.
Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said on NBC's "Meet The Press" that the Trump administration was going to mitigate Puerto Rico's debt and work with the territory to rebuild the island.
"There is no way they are ever going to get back to prosperity with that debt hanging over them," he said. The process to deal with the debt — created by Congress through legislation known as PROMESA — will have to be used to deal with it, he said.
President Donald Trump said on his visit to Puerto Rico last week that the territory owed Wall Street a lot of money and "we are going to have to wipe that out."
"That does not mean that we're going to wave a magic wand and wipe out the debt, which is what many people interpreted the president to say, and it also doesn't mean we're going to bail them out, because we're not," Mulvaney said.