Washington - The federal allocations promised to Puerto Rico to mitigate the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria amount to about $41 billion , but authorities estimate that less than a quarter of those funds - the reconstruction pillar - have been disbursed to the island.
However, the government of Puerto Rico has calculated that, in fact, the total amount of aid needed to complete the reconstruction is over $ 100 billion.
After the slow and inefficient initial federal response, spokespersons for the government of Puerto Rico have recognized a significant delay in the release of a great portion of the assistance, which they attribute to the fact that the island is treated as a high-risk jurisdiction in the management of federal funds.
Until this weekend, neither the elected government -nor the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), in charge of the public finances of Puerto Rico- could not provide specific numbers on the disbursements that entered the Treasury.
According to the data offered by the US government and Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Día has been able to detail disbursements of about $ 7.640 billion to government entities, businesses and families in Puerto Rico.
At least, the disbursements for Medicaid and those granted to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to pay contractors for the repair of the power grid must be underestimated, since the government has not updated them since August 8 and June 30, respectively.
The director of the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), Omar Marrero, considers that the disbursements to entities and individuals on the island can reach $ 10 billion, mainly through traditional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for disasters
"The reimbursement process has been really hard, particularly when FEMA has imposed some requirements on us as if we were a risk jurisdiction, when we were not declared so," Marrero said in an interview.
Jennifer Gonzalez, Resident Commissioner in Washington D.C., said that the funds allocated by the federal government for Puerto Rico may be around $ 44 billion, but it usually includes funds for federal government facilities on the island.
Beyond the traditional federal bureaucracy, the government of Puerto Rico has not managed yet to get funds flowing from the permanent project program under section 428 of the Stafford Act, which will guide most repairs and new constructions.
Marrero argued that the continued "discriminatory treatment" is an example of the island's lack of political power due to its territorial status, an argument used by Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares to avoid assigning direct responsibility to President Donald Trump over government failures on responding to the emergency caused by Hurricane Maria.
In Washington, since the Whitefish scandal, attention on the management of emergency funds has increased, and as recently as last weekend, President Trump fanned the idea that the government of Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt under the American flag.
Where the funds come from
Most of the funds come from Congress resolutions, but they are distributed -mainly- through the federal departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Education, Health, and FEMA.
Half of the allocations were made through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program (CDBG-DR) of the federal Department of Housing. But not even the first $ 1.5 billion have been delivered, which were supposed to be disbursed in August and, that will mainly allow the reconstruction of houses destroyed or damaged by the hurricane.
"It is still necessary to sign the agreement between HUD and the Puerto Rico Department of Housing. Without that contract, the funds cannot be disbursed," said Marrero.
He also indicated that the delay makes him think that the second part of the CDBG-DR package, which would reach $ 8.2 billion, will not arrive until 2019, which would delay its impact on the economy and the development of infrastructure projects.
The funds are more important after FEMA did not approve granting money for permanent reconstruction work, "based on having a bad experience with that program" and on the grounds that, "with the CDBG-DR funds, we can meet that need" said Marrero.
Among the funds allocated by Congress, there are almost $ 2 billion from the CDBG-DR program that must be used to rebuild the power grid. HUD Deputy Secretary Pamela Hughes Patenaude said that this portion will be included in the third and final item under that program.
However, according to Marrero, the CDBG-DR funds to finance the repair of the power grid can be used before to fund the matching that Puerto Rico has to do for permanent projects. Right now, the government of Puerto Rico, in bankruptcy, is pressing to reactivate exemptions in the payment of part of the cost for debris removal and taking emergency measures in the face of a natural disaster.
Not all the data offered on federal assistance are from consistent programs between one jurisdiction and another.
In Texas, where Hurricane Harvey caused $ 125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center, FEMA said that it placed $ 13.820 billion in "the pockets of survivors" through federal and state grants, and primarily through flood insurance programs ($ 8.8 billion).
In Puerto Rico, the percentage of homes with FEMA insurance is minimal, so they need to resort to other programs.
"We have committed billions of dollars in Puerto Rico, and billions more are expected. This is almost double the current obligations than with other jurisdictions, such as Texas or Florida. The administration (Trump) has sought and secured the unprecedented capacity to carry out improved projects and Puerto Rico has a real opportunity to establish a new path," said FEMA.
"Fiscal and liquidity problems in Puerto Rico are certainly challenges for the recovery, but we continue to work with the government of Puerto Rico so that it can recover as quickly as possible," the federal agency added in writing.
Economists and Moody's credit-rating firm warned that "a large part of the money will not remain on the island", which calls into question the high expectations of economic growth that the government has projected for 2019 (6.5 percent).
A crucial relief for the government budget were the $ 4.8 billion allocated for Medicaid, which can be used until September 2019 without requiring contribution from the island. Usually, the government of Puerto Rico has to provide almost half of the expenses of that federal healthcare program.
However, as of October 2019, the contribution of the Government of Puerto Rico to the Mi Salud (My Health) plan must be resumed. To complicate the scenario, Medicaid emergency funds may run out during the 2020 federal fiscal year, which would annually cause a fiscal cliff of about $ 1 billion in that health plan.
"We are concerned about what may happen from October 2019 to September 2020. There is not much hope that something can be done before the end of the year," said Jaime Pla, Hospital Association Executive Director. "But we have to start pushing because they will run out of that money and we will have to start over."
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