Washington - The new scandal that erupted María aid found unused amid current earthquakes aftermath reminds us that most of the recovery funds approved after the hurricane, have not been disbursed, and people feel trapped by the inefficiency of both federal and state governments.
"The responsibility is shared," said Ariadna Godreau Aubert, executive director of Ayuda Legal (Legal Aid) Puerto Rico, an organization that provides legal support to communities in recovery and reconstruction processes.
According to estimates by the Puerto Rican government – which are more ambitious than those by the Oversight Board - that the island would need about $90 billion in federal assistance, of that total, some $60 billion would be for reconstruction-related projects.
Between Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) funds and "permanent works" that would be financed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the total available for reconstruction projects is about $1.607 billion.
That $1.607 billion package is divided into $1.507 billion in CDBG-DR funds, of which only $10.8 million had been used by the end of 2019, according to the most recent federal report, and $100 million from FEMA recently announced by Governor Vázquez Graced.
At Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, they are concerned about the new requirements imposed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on the use of most of the $20.5 billion package allocated to the island for reconstruction projects through the CDBG-DR program.
But, at the same time, they don't know about anyone whose house was inspected for the use of the first $1.507 billion in CDBG-DR funds that the government has available since February 2019 but has only used $10.8 million.
"We oppose further intervention and undemocratic mechanisms. But we must also denounce the fact that the money (available) has not been used. We do not know of a single person whose home is being inspected under the R3 program - for repair, reconstruction or relocation," which covers most of the use of that first $1.507 billion package, Godreau Aubert said.
The federal assistance approved for Puerto Rico after Hurricane María reaches, so far, $50 billion. The other $40 billion - a figure that the island's government expects to receive - would come through "permanent works" that would be financed by FEMA.
That $50 billion package includes the $20.5 billion in CDBG-DR funds that now face new restrictions that Vázquez Garced states her administration can comply with. The governor fired Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat, who on Friday considered that HUD is imposing "obstacles" that will further complicate access to the funds.
Of that $20.5 billion, HUD has only distributed the first $1.507 billion package.
Last week, HUD announced it had presented to the Puerto Rican government the document on how to use the $8.221 billion in CDBG-DR funds, whose action plan was authorized 11 months ago and published the Federal Register notice on the use of another $8.285 billion that Congress approved for mitigation projects under the same program.
But in both cases, HUD proposals include new and severe bureaucratic restrictions, such as that CDBG-DR projects require the Federal Financial Monitor´s approval – who oversees the use of those funds in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands - and that the Board certifies that they comply with the island's fiscal plan and budget.
HUD also requires the local government to prove that it complies with the reform of the island´s property registry, not to use the $16.5 billion in CDBG-DR funds for anything related to improvements to the power grid, and to repeal the executive order that established a minimum wage of $15 an hour for workers on federally funded reconstruction projects.
After the scandal over unused aid María aid, HUD Secretary Ben Carson – who´s been criticized by Congress for the slow disbursement of funds and for missing during four months a legal deadline to publish the Register Notice on the use of the $8.285 billion for mitigation projects – echoed the Donald Trump administration criticism of the island officials.
"The news out of Puerto Rico is disturbing, to say the least," Carson wrote Sunday night after Gil Enseñat's dismissal. "In order for healing to begin, the corruption must end," he added.
Before his departure, former Secretary Gil Enseñat indicated that the island's government has 90 days to accept or demand changes to the pre-agreement on the use of the $8.221 billion, even though Carson notified him that CDBG-DR funds would be divided into four disbursements, starting with $1.7 billion.
The Puerto Rican government also has 90 days to submit the action plan on the use of the other $8.285 billion for mitigation projects.
Last week, Gil Enseñat said some people at HUD, "not all of them" who wanted to make it more difficult for Puerto Rico to access CDBG-DR funds. "There are people who make it difficult," he said at the time.
Since the emergency triggered by Hurricane María, President Trump has described the government of Puerto Rico as corrupt, and found an echo in two key figures in the release of funds: White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, also still director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the HUD secretary.
In addition to the bureaucracy over the use of CDBG-DR funds, the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments are still negotiating cost estimates for all major reconstruction projects - called permanent works - that will be financed by FEMA and that the island's government expects to reach about $40 billion.
FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico should have reached an agreement -under Section 428 of the Stafford Act- by October 11. But the complicated process of reaching a total cost estimate for those projects, which cannot be changed, has not been completed three months after the deadline.
"We are working better than ever," Alexis Amparo, FEMA top official in Puerto Rico, told El Nuevo Día about the negotiations with the Office of Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resilience (COR3), but acknowledged that there is no certain date to complete the process in sight yet.
Until they reach an agreement on Section 428 permanent works, Puerto Rico cannot access the $10.2 billion in mitigation funds from CDBG-DR, which includes the $8.285 billion -the Federal Register Notice for its use was published Thursday- and the $1.932 billion allocated to help rebuild the power grid.
The new obstacles imposed by HUD and the scandal of the Ponce emergency supply warehouse full of unused María aid in the aftermath of the earthquakes emerge at a time when the House Democratic majority intends to push for a supplemental aid allocation of $3.35 billion to mitigate the damage caused by this month's earthquakes.
The Democrats bill also seeks to use funds approved for the emergency caused by Hurricane María to address the emergency of the January 7 earthquake and its constant aftershocks, and it also seeks to speed up the disbursement of $1.932 billion in CDBG-DR funds approved to rebuild the power grid.
Representative Nydia Velázquez (New York) said that the Democratic caucus is considering suing Trump for the hold on emergency funds to the island.
Following a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that concluded that the Donald Trump government illegally stopped military assistance to Ukraine approved by Congress, the public policy director of the Center for a New Economy (CNE), Sergio Marxuach, indicated that this analysis gives the Puerto Rican government tools to sue HUD and challenge the new restrictions on CDBG-DR funds.
"They are making the same mistakes that Congress is pointing out (to Trump) in the impeachment process. They are substituting the public policy vision of Congress, which did not impose any of those restrictions," Marxuach said.
About the restrictions, former Secretary Gil Enseñat wanted to examine whether not allowing the use of the next $16.5 billion in CDBG-DR funds for improvements to the power grid would also apply to the use of funds for independent projects funded through that program and the opportunity zones program.
Amid Trump and his government´s criticisms of the island, which include considering the management of public funds on the island as corrupt, Ayuda Legal said the Puerto Rican government should see those organizations that work for the communities to develop "a robust action plan” as allies.
"There has to be transparency," said Godreau Aubert, indicating that the only option "Housing has is opening the process to broader participation."