Washington, D.C. - The federal government's rhetoric on corruption in Puerto Rico, amid the response to two natural disasters, has the effect of criminalizing and further hampering emergency assistance for victims, warned yesterday congressional officials, nonprofit organizations and the Puerto Rican diaspora.
On one hand, that speech ignores the fact that, so far, it is federal officials or contractors who have been charged with corruption over recovery funds approved for the island after Hurricane María, said Adi Martínez, Senior Policy Analyst for Puerto Rican affairs at Oxfam, an organization that fights inequality. And on the other hand, it further fuels new restrictions and the slow disbursement of funds, which affects the victims, she added.
As an example of these restrictions, she pointed to HUD's new notice that requires the Oversight Board - as well as the new federal financial monitor - to approve reconstruction projects financed by the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR).
"Board members do not know about disaster recovery," Martínez said.
Oxfam representative in Washington on the island's affairs insisted on the request by her organization and others for the U.S. government to incorporate a civil society working group in the departments responsible for emergency assistance and reconstruction efforts on the island. This would foster transparency and accountability in the process of rebuilding Puerto Rico after Hurricane María and this month's earthquakes.
"Earthquakes are a new experience for all of us, for the residents, for those who make public policy decisions and for relief workers," Martínez said.
But all that is joins an incomplete recovery process following the catastrophe caused by Hurricane María. She said that after the earthquake, she met a family in Peñuelas still living in a part of their home, under a temporary roof. They didn´t receive FEMA assistance because they lack property deeds, and she believes that the Puerto Rican government program "Tú Hogar Renace" (Your Home Reborn) deceived them.
Now, amid the Trump administration's allegations of corruption, the access to nearly $20.5 billion in CDBG-DR funds, faces new restrictions. These include the government of Puerto Rico proving that it complies with the reform of the island´s property registry and that it will not use -at least- in anything related to power grid improvements. Also, they require to repeal the executive order providing to pay $15 an hour to workers in federally funded reconstruction projects.
Miguel Román, director of the Earth from Space Institute, said that having representatives of Puerto Rican civil society organizations at the debate table would allow the U.S. government to learn of the complications of imposing unattainable short-term requirements on the property registry in Puerto Rico or promoting the island's access to grants for rapid response research.
"The problem of equal access to housing is not a Puerto Rican problem, it is a global problem. Without equal access to housing, informal housing will not end," Román said.
Javier Cuebas of the Vamos4PuertoRico coalition said the earthquakes have shown the slow release of funds for the island's reconstruction process and the problems that austerity policies create in Puerto Rico by the public policy of austerity and unpayable public debt.
Amid new protests over the discovery of a warehouse in Ponce with unused emergency aid, Cuebas said that people "take to the streets" because they are looking for solutions "and they feel they are not being heard."
Puerto Ricans Martínez, Román, and Cuebas were the speakers at a briefing in Congress on the emergency triggered by this month's earthquakes, which have mainly impacted the island´s southern area, killing one person and damaging hundreds of homes and other structures while leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and thousands displaced.
The briefing also included the director of the Seismic Network, Victor Huérfano - who participated through the internet -, and the associate director for Natural Hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey, Dave Applegate; and the co-founder of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, Edil Sepúlveda.
Huérfano and Applegate noted that Puerto Rico Seismic Network has been able to adequately measure the nearly 2,000 seismic events that impacted since December 28, thanks to funding they accessed after Hurricane María.
The session - organized with the support of Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez - was attended by representatives from several congressional offices, including advisors to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern, and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González.