Every week, an official of the government of Puerto Rico criticizes the slowness, bureaucracy, or the unequal treatment that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gives to Puerto Rico.
However, for the head of FEMA in Puerto Rico, Michael Byrne, this is just a reflection of the usual "natural tension" 18 months after a natural disaster like the one Puerto Rico experienced with the Hurricanes Irma and María in September 2017.
For the federal official, it is normal that large reconstruction efforts, such as the one in Puerto Rico, face obstacles and differences that lead to confrontation or public debates.
"There will be disagreements, but the reason why I think this will work is because we all have the same goal, which is to rebuild more resiliently," Byrne said.
Disputes, however, are no small thing. The Puerto Rican government, led by Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, basically accuses FEMA of acting slowly, discrimination against the island's residents and limiting reconstructions funds for Puerto Rico after the disaster that caused nearly 3,000 deaths.
In an interview with El Nuevo Día, Byrne answered some of the public complaints on FEMA and was optimistic about the reconstruction process.
Why is it that FEMA does not seem to be reaching an understanding with the local government?
I would challenge that premise. I think we have a natural level of tension and debate that I would expect in large multibillion-dollar projects. If everything ran smoothly, everyone could do it. This requires a high level of effort and commitment. Sometimes, the best partners disagree. Sometimes, the best relationships face challenges.
Why exactly is FEMA showing this lack of confidence when it asks the local government for more documentation than the usual for reconstruction projects?
There are some processes that we follow that require certain levels of documentation. Just because there is a disaster does not mean that you are trained and prepared to handle the processes that emergency assistance requires ... The impression they seem to have out there is that we are not giving assistance. Let me tell you how much assistance has been distributed.
In 2018, on average, we distributed about $ 180 million per month to the Commonwealth. When you work with large figures, sometimes the numbers sound normal, but that figure is not standard at all. Since the beginning of the year, until now, we have provided an average of $ 55 million per week. Last week we distributed $ 105 million.
Could you compare those figures with previous disasters like Sandy or Katrina?
There is no comparison. They are not even close to them, neither in frequency nor in funds ... 90 percent of the disasters that FEMA handles, and we have between 60 and 70 natural disaster declarations a year, total $ 41 million. In Puerto Rico, we are spending more than the equivalent to a regular disaster per week. There is no incentive for me to withhold this money. The incentive for me is to do it correctly so that we do not have a report from the Inspector General saying that we have to return the money.
The governor (Ricardo Rosselló Nevares) has been vocal in highlighting differences over how FEMA has treated the disaster recovery in Puerto Rico compared to other jurisdictions.
In all the disasters that I have worked on, at this point, 18 months after, there is this kind of tension and it is because we always think that it is easy to know what to do, but it is not like that actually. There are many things that take time, engineering and architecture studies are required ... In a way, the governor is right in the sense that he should be putting pressure on us to do this quickly. That is his job and I appreciate that he is a partner in the process addressing these matters with us.
What should we expect in the next months?
The government will be handling Standard Form 270, funds disbursement. We are very excited about that. We believe that they have launched a good process. I think it demonstrates our mutual commitment, because we are going to be working on recovery for a long time. If you look at previous disasters, like Katrina, there are still works being done, and that was in 2005. We will work on this for a long time. We have established a strong commitment and strong commitments can withstand disagreements and strong arguments. That's why I know we have a good relationship, because we can have these discussions in a good way.
What will happen to the SF 428 (infrastructure cost estimates)? I understand that there are many differences in that aspect.
We are in the process of developing them together. The governor has identified 81 priority projects that we are working together to complete them. We established processes with panels of experts to evaluate these projects to ensure that estimates are correct, because we certainly do not want to underestimate. I hope that in the next quarter we will be seeing some of those projects developing. There is another group of projects, which we identify as small projects, their costs is about $ 123,100 or less (they are like 500) that we expect to advance quickly. Many of those projects are at the municipal level.
Will you be able to meet the deadline for these estimates? I understand that you have until October to complete them ...
The agreement we have leads us to review on the anniversary of the agreement, which is April 10. We are going to do a review to see what we have achieved, what we need to achieve and the time needed. We want to achieve that goal. We are going to move quickly to reach that goal, but we have to be realistic and we will see if more time is justified.
Will some of these FEMA initiatives be left unfinished so that HUD is forced to complete them, limiting the impact of the money there?
We are going to see what each agency can provide us as their contribution to specific problems. It will not always be FEMA the agency that contributes 100 percent of the funds ... It is in our best interest to provide as much funds as we can for projects that are eligible and reasonable. Those are the important words: eligibility and reasonableness. These are the elements that define the costs that we can cover. Certainly, there will be cases where you have to do it and HUD or another agency will have to disburse the funds.
Was eligibility and reasonableness what caused the reduction to a third on FEMA funds for repairs in public schools inPuerto Rico?
It had to do a lot with eligibility and what was damaged and what we could repair according to the laws and regulations we have to follow. There are other ways to make those repairs that would be missing.
It is said that FEMA made a very restrictive interpretation of the amendment of the Stafford Act, for 2018 disaster appropriations to allow reconstruction in a more resilient manner ...
FEMA has reached a decision on how to interpret the amendment. If the Commonwealth has reached a different way of looking at the matter, we are certainly open to dialogue and we are available to discuss the matter, but at this point we have an interpretation, and we are executing accordingly.