The U.S. president's decision to declare six municipalities in southwestern Puerto Rico as disaster areas offers new opportunities to assist the families most affected by the earthquake and recent aftershocks, as well as the central government, the municipalities, and the private sector.
Central and municipal government structures must ensure, with the utmost diligence, that affected families receive appropriate guidance and assistance. The government has confirmed that thousands of people remain in shelters and that approximately 800 residences have been damaged, some of them have been declared uninhabitable.
People who lost their homes have 60 days to document the damage and claim up to $35,000 in compensation. The Federal Disaster Management Agency (FEMA) said its personnel will visit the shelters to advise people on these issues. Other affected neighbors, staying in family homes or other places, must make the necessary arrangements to seek assistance.
A particularly positive aspect of a major disaster declaration for Puerto Rico is that the federal government will accept affidavits from families who lack property deeds. Easing the requirements on property deeds, requirements intended to reduce the risk of fraud should prevent families from not accessing assistance for damage to their homes. Lack of property documents has been a stumbling block in providing assistance to individuals and families whose homes were affected by the hurricanes in 2017.
On the other hand, this new major disaster declaration by the U.S. President will help mitigate the impact of the emergency on businesses in the southern area of the island. The newly authorized funds will be used, for example, for loans to small businesses for economic losses or business damage. They will also allow for the hiring of necessary crisis support staff over the next nine months and make available Disaster Unemployment Assistance for up to 26 weeks, legal services and debris removal.
In the meantime, government authorities need to adequately document the damage to public property and present technically sound reconstruction proposals. These steps are necessary for the swiftly and concrete release of relief funds.
It is up to all local sectors to make a wise and responsible use of the aid. Organized and transparent work at all levels will foster the island's credibility with federal authorities.
The federal government has also said it will lift a hold on long-delayed disaster relief funds approved for Puerto Rico following the 2017 hurricanes.
To that end, we are confident that the appointment of attorney Robert Couch as Federal Financial Monitor for the CDBG-DR program will serve to establish communication and mutual collaboration to ensure the proper disbursement and use of the $8.221 billion in disaster relief funds after approved for mitigation projects after Hurricane María struck the island two years ago.
It is important to build a constructive dialogue regarding the new restrictions for the disbursement of CDBG-DR funds, in order to avoid, more than two years after the hurricane, further delays in works that are key for the well-being of many Puerto Rican communities.
Just as Puerto Rico is called upon to demonstrate its capacity for transparency and accountability, the U.S. government must show reasonableness in its requirements for the disbursement and use of funds. Common responsibility efforts should lead to strengthen the island´s socio-economic development.
These recent White House decisions offer an opportunity to put the reconstruction process -still pending for many Puerto Ricans affected by the hurricane- on track. It is time to overcome any bureaucratic or political obstacles in order to lay Puerto Rico's new solid foundations.