(GFR Media)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agreed that Puerto Rican engineers certify cost estimates for reconstruction works, instead of relying solely on the federal agency technical staff, said Oscar Marrero, the head of Puerto Rico´s Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO).

According to the official, this decision will speed up the process to give way to permanent works projects, since so far, none of them has started at state or municipal level after Hurricane María.

Due to the delay in the approval of projects, Marrero indicated that the deadline is expected to be extended so that all permanent works have a damage estimate. The deadline, so far, is October 2019.

"Everything leads to the need of deadline extension since FEMA, to date, has not been able to develop an expedited process to streamline permanent reconstruction processes. We understand that, with the certification of (local) engineers, we will be able to streamline this process," said Marrero, who is also the governor authorized representative (GAR) before FEMA.

He was confident that allowing local engineers to certify estimates will speed up the process. 

"We understand that it will be a crucial tool to streamline permanent less complex projects," he said.

Marrero said that the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office has 2,900 permanent projects. Out of that total, 61 percent are municipalities permanent works.

Meanwhile, FEMA told El Nuevo Día, in written statements, that they have identified 680 permanent projects and have completed 4,213 inspections in municipalities. The inspections are carried out along with municipal, state and FEMA personnel. Once the inspection is completed, they work on a description of the damage and the scope of the work needed. Finally, they calculate costs.

FEMA also noted that – among the municipalities – there are 140 projects under the "permanent" category whose costs range between $ 50 million and $ 60 million.

The central government decided to use Section 428 of the Stafford Act (Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act) to request and obtain funding for permanent projects after a natural disaster. That is, first, they inspect affected areas and then they complete a damage assessment process, in agreement with FEMA and local governments.

As part of this process, FEMA evaluates and approves the architectural and engineering design that the central government and municipalities submit to the agency based on the previously agreed cost. Then,  they receive and advance of funds so they can to start the works.

According to FEMA,  the CRRO reviews the documentation before municipalities submit it to the Federal Emergency Management agency. 

Popular and New Progressive Mayors have publicly complained for not being consulted before the central government decided to use this mechanism for permanent projects. They also argue that the process is extremely bureaucratic and tedious, if compared to the previous one, which was through refunds.

Marrero defended this decision, but said that it is the first time that FEMA uses Section 428 "for the (entire) disaster (caused by the Hurricane)." In New York and New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy, FEMA only used it for some projects.

He said that depending on the capacity of the municipality, the expectation is to delegate the work to them. 

"We will definitely support those who have the capacity to speed up the works, he said.

Even so, he acknowledged that “the reconstruction of Puerto Rico could last 10 to 15 years. It's a long process. We are going to see small projects in 2019," he said.

As an example, he mentioned that construction works in public schools falls within a less complex category, so they work in blocks of dozens of schools.

"The first block are 64 schools," said Marrero.

Vieques CDT

Right now, the Diagnostic and Treatment Center (CDT, Spanish acronym) in Vieques is emerging as the first permanent project to be completed, said Marrero.

A panel of experts is evaluating both the construction of a new structure for the CDT, as well as for a public residences in Ciales.

"That estimate was originally of $ 20 million. Then, when we reviewed it, it went up to almost $ 60 million. It is before FEMA expert panel and we are waiting for the final decision," he said.

"We are putting pressure on FEMA to finish that estimate before the end of the year, but unfortunately we do not control the process," he added.

He said they will keep " fighting" to streamline the works and have access to more federal funds for the island´s reconstruction.

According to Axios, US President Donald Trump said he does not favor more relief funds for Puerto Rico, that information has not been denied by the White House.

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