For former assemblyman Pete Lopez, now EPA regional administrator, returning to family roots in Puerto Rico, was, as Yogi Berra used to say, deja vu all over again. The devastation caused by last fall’s hurricanes, he said, was “horrifically” reminiscent of when Irene and Lee hit his home. It was heartbreaking but galvanizing. “We were homeless, our homes in Schoharie village under eight feet of water,” he said. The storms had swept his Assembly district and the entire region some six years ago. .
Puerto Rico, an American territory in the Caribbean, was hit much harder, in large part, said Lopez. Most of its power grid was knocked out. In the Catskills power was more quickly restored, even though other effects of the storms still linger.
EPA Region 2 encompasses New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. Lopez said he spends a lot of time on airplanes.
Lopez was a six-term Republican assemblyman who resigned his seat in early October to assume his new position, which pays $170,000 a year, almost twice his Assembly salary. But Lopez says the new gig is a break-even proposition. “I keep a studio apartment in New York [near EPA regional headquarters] and my home in Schoharie, so it’s pretty much the same.”
Lopez’s father, a native of Puerto Rico, met his mother after immigrating to Miami in the late Fifties. The family moved to Schoharie shortly after Lopez, now 61, was born. He attended local schools. ”I’m roughly conversational in Spanish,” he said.
Lopez was on the devastated island about a week after being appointed, a month after the hurricanes hit. “It was very emotional and challenging,” he said. “How do we bring people back in a way that protects and strengthens them for future events, to make them more sustainable and resilient?”
Emergency generators, many solar-powered, were set up around the island. They will be left in place for future events in what is known regionally as Hurricane Alley.
EPA, in conjunction with other federal agencies like FEMA, has been criticized for its response. Lopez says the agency has some 400 people on the ground, and that billions of dollars of federal funding have been committed to the recovery.
Lopez said his previous life as a pubic official had served him well in dealing with what amounts to constituent services on a massive scale. Lopez, who holds a master’s degree in public administration, began his career as an aide to the late state senator Charles Cook and former Assembly minority leader John Faso, now a congressman.
Lopez briefly toyed with the idea of running for Congress when former congressman Chris Gibson announced in January 2016 that he would not seek a fourth term. He opted instead for reelection (without opposition) to another term in the Assembly. Saugerties, on the eastern end, is the biggest town in the district.
Lopez, a lifelong Republican, has not taken a position on the April 24 special election to fill the vacancy.