Ever since reconstruction in Puerto Rico -after Hurricanes Irma and María struck the island- was discussed, the expectation was that it would take 18 months of preparation, a period to carry out public infrastructure work in schools, highways, housing, and public buildings.
That is, even though the government spent months blaming federal agencies for the slow bureaucratic reconstruction processes, this delay was contemplated from the beginning in the reconstruction process selected by the state government itself, governor Wanda Vázquez Garced said yesterday.
“The disbursement of funds was quick for the projects completed during the emergency. That was $ 12.2 billion. When we go to recovery, we used the Section 428 model,” the governor said yesterday in an interview with several media at La Fortaleza, hours before the second anniversary of Hurricane María.
Vázquez Garced said that when operations under that Section were adopted, it was established that estimates of damage costs would take 18 months. "There were 18 months in which there were not going to be major advances," she said.
Section 428 allows not only to replace damaged public infrastructure, as it happens in regular reconstruction processes, but also provides flexibility in the use of reconstruction funds so that improvements to roads, streets, the power grid, among other public infrastructure are included.
In total, there are about 9,000 reconstruction projects included for Puerto Rico, of which less than 5 percent started. The governor indicated they are receiving support from FEMA to separate 5,000 initiatives with damage estimated at less than $ 123,000 so they can advance by shortening bureaucratic processes between the local and federal governments.
"That will allow us to work with these projects in three or four weeks ... They are between $ 300 and $ 400 million that will be disbursed and worked out swiftly," the governor said.
The governor also said that U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson promised to speed up those processes related to the release of $ 8,2 billion of the $ 18 billion Congress approved to address the needs not covered by regular natural disaster relief programs. These funds, according to the proposal developed by the Puerto Rican government, would be used mainly to repair, relocate or rebuild homes and in incentives to boost local economic development.
"He committed to signing the agreement to use the funds ... Wehope that regarding CDBG-DR funds, the process can move forward in the coming weeks," said Vázquez Garced, who was in Washington in meeting with the U.S. administration officials and in Congress last week.
Vázquez Garced said that, in general terms, the government has taken steps to be better prepared for a new hurricane like the one that destroyed Puerto Rico in 2017. She mentioned, for example, that they strengthened the high-voltage power transmission system, and developed new emergency plans, increased repair materials, and that new electricity generators are being installed at the Palo Seco Power Plant, which will allow a faster restoration of power.
However, the governor expressed concern about facilities in government shelters, some of which don’t meet basic specifications, such as alternative sources of energy like electricity generators or solar panels.
In fact, she indicated that they are buying and installing new generators in shelters with these deficiencies.