Yesterday, Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher warned that public schools structure´s stability could be at risk if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cuts $ 1 billion from the funds needed for permanent repairs in 64 schools damaged by Hurricane María.
Keleher detailed that FEMA reduced the estimated allocation for permanent work in 64 schools that require repairs due to the damage caused by the hurricane.
Originally, FEMA estimates indicated that Puerto Rico needed $ 1.4 billion to repair schools. But FEMA office in Washington D.C. reduced it to $ 425 million, according to the Secretary.
Keleher said that school buildings are not in suitable conditions and that they have been waiting for more than a year. “This is about dignity, schools should not be in such condition,” she noted.
Sixteen months after Hurricane María, there are still classrooms without roof, cracked walls and structures without windows, among other damage in some of the 856 schools that are operating.
The secretary explained that the changes in the estimates occurred after the federal agency determined that repairs financed with federal funds will not include seismic-resistant columns in some schools, that represent about $ 500 million.
And also, after the federal government shutdown, FEMA determined that it will not pay another $ 500 million to repair doors and windows, nor will it address problems that schools had before Maria, Keleher explained.
Meanwhile, this weekend, FEMA indicated that they are working with Education to identify solutions due to the significant damage caused by Hurricane María, but that the process will not be resolved quickly.
In answering to a El Nuevo Día request, FEMA said that funds currently allocated are not necessarily the final amount, and that they are working on the evaluation of all the costs associated to reconstruction works.
Since last November, there have been reports – that have not been denied by the White House – alleging that President Donald Trump objected to allocating new disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico.
On the other hand, Resident Commissioner in Washington D.C. Jenniffer González, was surprised by Keleher´s complaint.
The Commissioner said that Keleher has never requested or notified her about that issue. That she called her to ask about it and intervene, but “she did not answer my calls nor has she provided information.”
According to FEMA, $ 29.7 million have been delivered to Education so far.
These funds are for Category B projects, which are immediate repairs made to structures to ensure health and safety of the people. The secretary said that $ 60 million have been set aside for roof sealing, painting and fungus removal work to be done in the 856 public schools during the summer.
Reconstruction projects are financed through what is known as Category E projects, that would be done through reimbursements, said Keleher. To begin with these projects, Education would have to identify their own resources first.
FEMA warned that projects that exceed $ 1 million require review of compliance with eligibility requirements, compliance with environmental and historical preservation and additional evaluation.
The official statement added that FEMA can only approve funds to reimburse eligible costs related to the disaster after validating that applicable eligibility criteria are met.
But it also states that FEMA can reduce funds to an applicant if there was prior damage, if it does not pose an immediate threat, if there is no documentation to justify it, or hiring procedures do not comply with federal regulations.
In its response, FEMA did not detail what the problem with the Education request is.
Keleher stressed that, although it is common for "negotiations" to be carried out after receiving the initial estimate, FEMA´s current procedure puts schools structure´s stability at risk.
"I know they are still granting funds to Louisiana (for damage due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005), I'm not asking too much ... I need to be allowed to address everything I understand that is necessary for schools to meet a minimum standard," said the secretary. "I am trying to defend our students' right to be in a good place, to be in a safe school environment," she added.