The government submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cost estimates for 171 for recovery projects in Puerto Rico, but only four (2 percent) have been approved and have funds separated, said yesterday Omar Marrero, Executive Director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3).
Those delays at the federal level join others at the local level, as those 171 cost estimates completed by the Puerto Rican government represent only 3.4 percent of the more than 5,000 permanent improvement projects needed as part of Puerto Rico’s recovery after hurricanes Irma and María struck the island nearly two years ago.
Marrero alleged that, in general, delays respond to the fact that FEMA is experiencing with the imposition of the Stafford Act’s Section 428 to manage all recovery projects associated with the emergency in Puerto Rico.
Section 428 allows FEMA not only to rebuild the infrastructure damaged by the hurricanes, but it may include additional improvements. The problem is that, in order to implement this section, all damages have to be estimated in order to proceed with the proposals and eventual reconstruction.
Both Puerto Rico and FEMA have until October to complete that process of estimates.
During a press conference at La Fortaleza, Marrero added that this is the first time FEMA is implementing section 428 for the entire disaster, without having written policies, without guidelines, changing back and forth and having to ask for a congressional statement to clarify policies.
According to Marrero, the most effective way to advance these processes would be for FEMA to allow engineers graduated in Puerto Rico to certify cost estimates and projects in general, as happens in other U.S. jurisdictions.
Currently, the government is preparing some estimates while FEMA prepares others, and then both documents are consolidated.
"The only way to speed this up is to allow matters to be executed at the local level. They will assist at the federal level, administered at the state level and executed at the local level," he said.
"We can estimate that there are projects that will take a while, but there are sectors, such as public buildings, (that) that with an engineer’s certification could proceed with the project," he added.
So far, FEMA and the central government have agreed on cost estimates for 48 projects involving investments of $ 68.5 million.
Marrero said that they will bring these issues to the U.S. Congress Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications during a hearing in Washington, D.C. tomorrow.
He indicated they have already taken these concerns before FEMA administrators in the U.S. capital and also before the heads of Homeland Security.
Marrero said in Washington they have seen the proposals to address delays in recovery with good eyes. This, however, has not translated into changes in the way they are working to address hurricane response.
This is not an isolated case
However, delays now are not just limited to FEMA. Since February, the U.S. Housing Secretary (HUD) Ben Carson has been considering the approval of the $ 8,2 billion plan for Puerto Rico’s recovery. This amount represents the first part of the $ 18 billion approved by Congress in 2018 to address the island’s emergency and reconstruction.
Marrero said that, as far as he knows, neither Carson nor HUD executives have questioned or required changes to the plan for the use of funds and that the document has simply remained in the federal agency secretary’s office pending final approval.
When asked if it was a problem about confidence or about the federal government willing to release reconstruction funds, Marrero declined to comment.
The official did say that the U.S. government has treated Puerto Rico as a high-risk jurisdiction in the management of reconstruction funds, partly due to the central government's bankruptcy.
The logic of the U.S. government was that, contrary to other jurisdictions, since Puerto Rico is in a bankruptcy process, it would not have the necessary funds to return to the federal government any allocation that might be mismanaged.