The road to Puerto Rico's reconstruction now includes speeding up part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relief funds for post-María recovery efforts.
By easing the requirements on certain permanent work projects called "large scale non-critical", the federal government shows its sensitivity to the emergency the island is facing and also its will to facilitate recovery. It also recognizes the efforts of the local government to adopt controls and implement reconstruction plans.
The decision over the disbursement of these disaster relief funds, coupled with the presidential major disaster declaration for several municipalities following the earthquakes, should help with the flow of aid for earthquake victims and advance the delayed recovery after the 2017 hurricanes.
The local government should embrace the federal decision with strict and efficient tools to ensure the best use of the funds. It will also be important to prove that the state works tirelessly, in an active and organized manner, to identify priority projects and implementation plans.
FEMA's decision does not require to agree on fixed cost estimates. The local government can now begin with a project and FEMA will pay for it once it is completed. Therefore, the government will be able to rebuild municipal structures and other projects under Section 406, such as roads, which are key to put the economy back on track.
As part of the process, the local government and FEMA should define which projects will be included in this benefit to and which remain under greater restrictions. They should evaluate which works are most urgent and offer the best opportunities to boost the island's growth.
In announcing the decision, FEMA acknowledged efforts by Governor Wanda Vázquez in helping the victims of the 2017 hurricanes and the recent earthquakes.
In addition to the announcement FEMA made Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education granted an extension for the use of federal funds for immediate aid to repair schools.
These measures expand the local government's immediate action framework to effectively address the needs triggered by the 2017 hurricanes, especially after recent severe restrictions on the use of disaster relief funds imposed by the federal government.
Reconstruction is one of the great challenges in Puerto Rico´s agenda this year, and so are debt restructuring agreements that were submitted to PROMESA Title III Court. As the earthquakes have, once again, shown, the power grid must be transformed and there must be social justice strategies to close the inequality gap. In 2017, as it happens now, the need to provide affordable and safe housing to the people, particularly those affected by the hurricane and the earthquakes, is evident.
This emerging improvement in the relationship with the federal government encourages us to keep on working to strengthen that relationship. Every proactive action by local authorities will serve as a stepping stone to gain confidence in Washington, the markets and the population. The spirit of openness recently shown by the federal government about FEMA funds could join those efforts seeking to open the way to speed up the release of CBDG-DR program funds for major infrastructure and housing projects.
Puerto Rico began a year that underscores those priority needs, further worsened since the 2017 emergency. A united effort can draw essential maps to guide recovery in the best direction.