FEMA workers assigned to the Public Assistance Program process both requests for emergency response and permanent reconstruction projects. (GFR Media)

The government of Puerto Rico has exactly one year to reach an agreement with the Federal EmergencyManagement Agency (FEMA) on the estimated cost of each of the permanent reconstruction works, in which it is projected to invest about $ 37 billion in federal funds from the Public Assistance Program.

Until the parties reach an understanding, there is no certainty that the funds necessary to develop reconstruction projects will be released.

Although the 18-month period granted by FEMA in April to resolve the matter would seem sufficient, during the first semester, only seven cost estimates -of the 478 that the administration of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has submitted to the federal agency- have been approved, according to official figures until last Thursday.

In an interview with El Nuevo Día, the director of the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), Omar Marrero, attributed the delay in the disbursement of funds for reconstruction to the fact that FEMA still has most of its personnel devoted to the phase of response and emergency, which includes the elimination of risks to life and property.

"There is a reality: there is an obstruction in the different project formulations on their part, and we are requesting prioritization," observed Marrero.

Time for the program began to run in April, when the guide for permanent reconstruction in Puerto Rico was published. The government has until October 2019 to sign a cost agreement with the federal agency. After that date, no work will be eligible for consideration or inclusion in a fixed-cost subsidy, according to the document, however it allows extensions in exceptional cases.

The 819 FEMA workers assigned to the Public Assistance Program process both requests for emergency response and permanent reconstruction projects, which are conceptualized as long-term recovery works.

The agency has received 970 formal requests to finance debris removal and emergency protection projects, under program categories A and B. At the same time, they have 85 worksheets -as they call the requests- for permanent reconstruction projects, under categories C and G. Of these, they have processed little more than a third, said FEMA spokesman Juan A. Rosado.

However, before FEMA receives a worksheet requesting funding for reconstruction works, federal guidelines require the state government to complete four steps to advance any project: describing the damage, defining the scope of the work, proposing a risk mitigation plan and developing cost estimates. It is in that last point where Marrero affirmed that there are delays.

The negotiation to fix the costs "is a very technical process, but essential," admitted Marrero, because the State will have to pay any additional expense which may be above the estimate. Congress adopted this policy with the intention of encouraging cost efficiency and saving federal money.

They don´t dance to the beat

To carry out this process, the CRRO has 400 employees, who were hired through the ICF Incorporated firm, at a cost of $ 181 million, according to the document registered in the Office of the Comptroller of Puerto Rico.

Marrero indicated that his supervisors have completed 2,566 visits and 1,939 damage assessments of public infrastructure that could qualify for FEMA funding. Likewise, government contractors have defined the scope of work for 648 projects and have submitted 478 cost estimates, of which only seven have been signed.

These procedures are included section 428 of the Stafford Act, which allows constructions resistant to future disasters by setting costs in advance.

"We cannot be tempted to think that nothing is being done," said the director of the office created through an Executive Order, in defense of what he described as an extensive negotiation process between the appraisers of both entities.

It will take time

The agency headed by Brock Long - and which has Michael Byrne as the recovery officer of Puerto Rico - has only approved eight damage assessments and eight definitions of the scope of permanent reconstruction works.

Justo Hernandez, FEMA's deputy federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico admitted to this newspaper that solving the infrastructure problems of Puerto Rico will take time because of the need to have design and engineering plans for the works proposed by Rosselló Nevares in his recovery plan. He also said that the agency staff is still devoted to emergency response tasks, so their time and attention are divided between different projects.

"We still have agents who are responding. We cannot get them out of that response to force them to start working in the recovery process," said Hernández.

The agency still has 53 electric generators located in flood control pumps of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) and filtration plants of the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewer Authority (PRASA), he said.

He explained that, "from now on, all processes and projects will be long processes, large projects, which will take time", because those works located near bodies of water require hydrological and flooding studies and, for example.

A request to Trump

The director of the CRRO brought a claim to the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Treasury to complete the response phase as soon as possible and, in this way, FEMA can focus on permanent reconstruction projects, one year ahead of the deadline to agree on disbursements.

For Hernández, the remaining period is enough to reach agreements with the government on the cost estimates of the hundreds of public works that are being prepared to rebuild in Puerto Rico. He indicated that if time runs out before obtaining it, "we will take its case by case and we will extend it according" to the need. "We are going to work on the needs of Puerto Rico in the best possible way," he reiterated.

The first works

The Center for Diagnosis and Treatment (CDT) is among the government reconstruction works, with an estimated cost that has tripled. "It's not repair; it is to demolish and rebuild because, among the damages identified, there was mold, humidity and an environmental situation that could not be corrected," he said.

Something similar happened with a residential area, which cost increased more than four times during the negotiation.

Marrero reported that supervisors have run into situations in which those who made the FEMA estimates failed to verify structural defects, such as termites or fungi. This causes them to request reconsideration. "They are verifying all those jobs, particularly because 70 percent of FEMA workers are new," he said.

Marrero refused to disclose which first public works will receive federal funds until they are approved by the panel of experts.

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