Under the emergency declaration approved by U.S. President Donald Trump following this week's earthquakes in Puerto Rico, the island's government will have access to federal funds to finance up to three-quarters of emergency efforts to save and protect lives and properties.
But at this stage, the authority granted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to intervene in Puerto Rico amid this new emergency does not include temporary housing assistance programs or funds for homes or public facilities reconstruction.
This will require the government of Puerto Rico – with the support of the emergency assessment by federal authorities- to submit a separate request seeking President Trump to declare at least certain municipalities disaster areas.
The emergency declaration for Puerto Rico signed Tuesday night by President Donald Trump states that Federal assistance "will be provided at 75 percent Federal funding," but includes all 78 municipalities.
"Right now, we are working with the declaration of emergency," which was requested Tuesday by Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced, said Tom Fargione, FEMA's deputy federal coordinating officer for earthquake response.
FEMA "is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment, and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency."
Once local governments on the island conclude the damage assessment, Governor Vázquez Garced would have to submit an independent request to declare Puerto Rico or some of its municipalities disaster areas.
FEMA, along with the Puerto Rican government, will consider submitting a request for the declaration of a disaster area that would allow access to public or individual assistance programs, Fargione said.
Alexis Amparo, who is FEMA top official on the island and was already in charge of the efforts related to Hurricane María, has been named Federal Coordinating Officer for federal response operations in the affected areas.
Amparo said he has mobilized 150 employees and has been in constant communication with the mayors in the island's southern area to identify their main needs.
Meanwhile, Governor Vázquez Garced named COR3 executive director, Ottmar Chávez, as her authorized representative and Secretary of State Elmer Román as the state coordinator.
Carlos Acevedo, Commissioner of the Bureau of Emergency Management and Disaster Management (NMEAD), told El Nuevo Día that the request made to the Trump administration was limited to Category B Emergency Protective Measures - on FEMA's recommendation - to speed up the immediate response.
In a statement, the governor explained that through the White House declaration of emergency, the island can receive assistance for emergency access to supplies and basic products, medical care and transportation, evacuation and shelters, safety inspections, removal of dead animals, search and rescue, costs of firefighting, safety, as well as the use or rental of temporary generators for facilities that provide essential community services.
Other federal departments, however, may intervene independently under their own regulations.
In that sense, Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat referred to the possibility of granting "vouchers" for the Temporary Rental Assistance program (TRA) of the federal Housing Department (HUD) or subsidies under Section 8.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was mobilized for the infrastructure damage assessment as it did at the Cerrillos Dam in Ponce – and for efforts to restore the power service.
At a time when there are over 2,000 refugees, some 300 damaged homes, 60 percent of the island without power and people sleeping outdoors, Legal Aid Puerto Rico criticized the federal emergency declaration because it lacks temporary housing aid.
"This exacerbates the vulnerability of communities that are waiting for assistance to repair their homes more than two years after the 2017 hurricanes... This situation requires immediate assistance, including temporary housing, hotel vouchers, and others and that is a municipalities and central government responsibility," said Ariadna M. Godreau, executive director of Legal Aid Puerto Rico, a community work organization.
Joanisabel González collaborated with this story.