(GFR Media)

Washington – Inequity in Puerto Rico´s recovery process after Hurricane María is not limited to disagreements between Washington and San Juan over the island's colonial status, but rather extends to the way reconstruction is implemented at the local level, according to organizations that fear the most vulnerable will fall victims of this process again.

"Recovery funds reaching the people who need them most remains as a constant concern," said Ariadna Michelle Godreau Aubert, executive director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico (Legal Aid Puerto Rico).

Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and the Center for a New Economy (CNE) question that the so-called R3 plan, which allocates $825 million of the first $1.507 million package through the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) - controlled by the federal Housing Department (HUD) - to repair, rebuild, or relocate homes, does not provide mitigation funds.

Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat acknowledged that the R3 program does not include mitigation projects, but justifies this because relocations will be "voluntary." "The person who does not want to relocate is not eligible for the funds" that will be provided through CDBG-DR funds, according to Gil Enseñat.

For Gil Enseñat, it would not be a "good use of money" to invest, in certain areas, more than the property value.

The federal government committed a total of $20.25 billion to the island through the CDBG-DR program, which, along with the permanent works funded by FEMA, make the core of Puerto Rico's reconstruction process after the devastation caused by Hurricane María two years ago.

Of those, $8.285 billion are for mitigation projects. But HUD has yet to publish the guidelines for the use of those funds and then authorize the grant agreement with the government of Puerto Rico before releasing those funds, which, due to Congressional restrictions, does not seem to be happening this year.

Deepak Lamba Nieves, CNE Researcher Director believes it is a mistake not to consider the economic profile of familiesor "the risk of taking a person out of their social and economic environment."

Civic and community groups, in turn, have pointed out that the lack of property deeds and rules established have blocked assistance to tens of thousands of families whose homes were damaged.  "In Puerto Rico, with a long tradition of informal settlements, these programs are not necessarily designed to meet those needs," Lamba Nieves said.

Godreau Albert said that in the case of FEMA, 77,000 people were left out of the process of assistance to individuals and families because of limitations in proving they are the owner of the property when asked to present, property deeds or sworn affidavits.

Meanwhile, Lamba Nieves said U.S. companies that have been hired by the government to draw up plans for the use of reconstruction funds present "pre-designed formulas" for other disasters that ignore the Puerto Rican reality.

Lamba Nieves also does not perceive the government has the intention - perhaps fearing to increase distrust at the federal level - to make corrections along the way. The CNE investigator also alluded to how the reconstruction process is a victim of the last decade public policy in favor of "dismantling the public structure."

HUD Secretary Ben Carson continues to point to the Puerto Rican government's record of "fiscal mismanagement" and announced the appointment of a financial monitor to oversee the use of CDBG-DR funds on the island.

Also, HUD has insisted that it had to wait for the Puerto Rico Department of Housing to develop an adequate administrative structure to release the first $1.507 billion.

Gil Enseñat has stressed that his department, which has never handled allocations as large as CDBG-DR funds total, has had to create regulations "from scratch."

The other agency in the Puerto Rican government that handles a large number of funds, the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resiliency (COR3), "came up out of nowhere" and it is the contractors who have experience in disaster management, said Lamba Nieves.


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