Yesterday, the leadership of House Committee on Natural Resources left their first meeting in Puerto Rico convinced that it will be necessary to have legislation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to finance the reconstruction of critical infrastructure with resilience.
"We have to make some changes in legislation to help with that process," said Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), after a meeting he and other members of the Committee held with FEMA deputy coordinator in Puerto Rico Justo Hernández
Yesterday, members of the Natural Resources Committee began four days of meetings focused on the Puerto Rican recovery process and the effect of PROMESA´s measures on Puerto Ricans, especially austerity measures imposed by the Oversight Board, which oversees the island´s public finances.
The first meeting was with FEMA directors in San Juan and included Republican, Rob Bishop (Utah), Puerto Rican Democrats Nydia Velázquez (New York) and Darren Soto (Florida), and Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González.
Jennifer González said that amendments to the Stafford Act made in 2017 were intended to ensure that critical infrastructure reconstruction sought to modernize it and make it more resilient, even if that included repairing damage to the structures prior to the hurricane.
But, FEMA leadership makes a different interpretation and that has already resulted in reducing from $1.4 billion to $425 million the funds estimated for public schools reconstruction after Hurricane María, according to the members of the Natural Resources Committee.
"FEMA has to empower local governments," said Bishop.
Representative Velázquez said that they will work in a language that can be promoted by the Natural Resources Committee, but warned that this issue is not exclusive to Puerto Rico, since it will benefit recovery and reconstruction of other jurisdictions impacted by natural disasters.
For Commissioner González if they do not rebuild with more resilience, “they will end up spending more money,” constantly repairing infrastructure that could be more resistant to other hurricanes.
“Although we amended the law (Stafford) so that reconstruction is not like in the past, there are challenges from FEMA and HUD to approve this kind of projects,” González added.
Meanwhile, Soto said that they should maintain pressure on the Trump administration," before the slow federal response to the emergency and delays in access to recovery funds that Puerto Rican authorities have denounced.
Hernández, FEMA deputy coordinator, said that the meeting with the House Committee on Natural Resources delegation gave them the opportunity to strengthen their relationship and ensure a solid collaboration.
He also said that participants were able to learn about the island´s recovery process, including their close collaboration with the government of Puerto Rico to achieve the priorities set by Governor (Ricardo) Rosselló.
After the meeting at FEMA offices, the delegation visited The National Institute of Energy and Island Sustainability (INESI, Spanish acronym) of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).
Reviewing the future of Puerto Rico´s energy system is one of the issues in Grijalva´s agenda. The island´s power grid was battered by María and left Puerto Ricans in the dark for long months.
Today, the Natural Resources Committee delegation will visit the Toro Negro solar community, in Ciales, where they will meet with Senators Eduardo Bhatia and Larry Seilhamer and with directors of the Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
At a time when the government of Puerto Rico considers it requires at least
$ 16 billion to rebuild the power grid, the Legislature is about to complete the bill for the transformation and regulation of the energy system.