Devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa.
Devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa. (The Associated Press)

Almost three years after the devastating Hurricane María hit the island, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has obligated funds for 30 percent of the more than 10,000 projects it will finance as part of Puerto Rico´s reconstruction process.

The promise, however, is to speed up these initiatives over the coming months and that, before the end of this year, half (50 percent) of the projects will be on track and, by 2021, they will all have a specific package to finance them, said Ottmar Chávez, head of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) yesterday.

These projects include rebuilding classrooms in public schools or head start centers, installing systems in community aqueducts, rebuilding roads, courts, community centers, government offices, and parks, among other public infrastructure.

Once the funds are obligated or separated, the entities that will develop the projects - state and municipalities agencies as well as non-profit organizations - have between five and seven years to complete the work. Some particular initiatives, such as those being developed at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) could take longer, between eight and 10 years.

“From what I’ve seen, the first two years were a little slow. That is not necessarily something extraordinary because, in other emergencies, in those first two years there is more response than reconstruction,” said José G. Baquero Tirado, who a week ago made his debut as FEMA’s new coordinator for the reconstruction of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

FEMA introduced the new official as the new “permanent” coordinator. That is, he is the one who would assume the role permanently and not temporarily as his predecessors. He is the third official in this position since María struck the island in 2017, causing damage totaling $94 billion, according to Puerto Rican government estimates. (“The permanent nature of the appointment”) is an acknowledgment by the agency of having a longstanding commitment here.

(The reconstruction after María) is the largest investment in our history. What the response requires s different from what the recovery phase requires. Now, we talk about longer-term work, and the agency decided to hire a permanent coordinator. My role was to organize the office and be part of that selection of Baquero," said Alex Amparo, FEMA’s coordinator in Puerto Rico over the last year.

Baquero Tirado’s arrival comes at a time when the agency is refocusing its operations to an oversight role for reconstruction initiatives already underway.

Amparo said that, a year ago, when he began as Puerto Rico reconstruction coordinator, they approved between 10 and 15 projects each month. “Over the last few months, between 400 to 500 projects were approved,” he said.

“Reconstruction takes time because you have to do things right. Now, with this pace, we are going faster than with Sandy (the hurricane that affected several states in the northeast of the United States in 2012),” said Amparo, who once the transition in Puerto Rico is completed will return to FEMA’s headquarters in Washington D.C.

First experience in FEMA

Baquero Tirado had never worked at FEMA before. He spent much of his federal career at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in Puerto Rico. He also worked in that agency in Orlando, Florida, between 2003 and 2005.

The official said he was selected for the position after a competitive process at FEMA. He added that after 15 years at the TSA, he was looking for new professional challenges and understood that he could collaborate through the emergency management agency. “It was enough time doing the same thing,” he said.

“I think this job is the most important federal position in Puerto Rico right now,” said Baquero Tirado, who is a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico Law School and headed the Ports Authority for two years.

The official, who was in FEMA’s regional offices in New York during the interview, did not talk yesterday about special commitments beyond boosting projects associated with the disasters that have affected Puerto Rico in recent years, including the January earthquakes in the southwest region.

“In terms of funds allocated and tasks, this is one of the largest projects FEMA has ever had. The money allocated to Puerto Rico after María is more than (the money allocated after the hurricanes) Katrina and Sandy combined. We are talking about an extremely important project and, in that sense, we have broad support from our best-skilled staff to work on this at the local level, the region, and the headquarters,” said Baquero Tirado, who as a lawyer specialized in maritime law.

According to Chávez, since the emergency began, FEMA allocated $17,700 billion for diverse initiatives, most of them related to the emergency phase, such as debris collection and repair of critical infrastructures, such as highways and the Guajataca dam. Of this total, the federal agency has already disbursed 60 percent, he noted.

Delays, however, appeared in reconstruction initiatives that, for the first time in FEMA, are being carried out under section 428 of the agency’s organic law, which allows not only to replace damaged infrastructure but to rebuild with modern infrastructure more resistant to natural disasters.

This process, however, required a series of project-specific damage estimates, and often the government of Puerto Rico and FEMA differed in the amounts in the documents. This led to a dynamic of revisions that forced to postpone the deadlines originally set to complete this phase. Subsequently, a special system was agreed upon to speed up projects with cost estimates under $123,000.

Chávez indicated, for example, that the municipalities of Ponce, Salinas, and Villalba recently awarded proposals, which gave way to rebuilding community infrastructure in these towns with FEMA funds. Amparo, meanwhile, indicated that many emergency works could be cataloged as reconstruction because they implied repairs that benefit the island in the long term, such as the posts system for power transmission and distribution.

“When we speak of an emergency, they are projects that have to be done immediately, like the thousands of tons of concrete in the Guajataca dam, which is going to be there for the next few years,” said Amparo.

The expectation to speed up works is based on the pace at which they are completing the bureaucratic processes before developing the projects.  

“The goal is that, by next year, the obligation of funds will be completed completely,” stressed Chávez.

"We are ready to face the challenge with the support of all our team ", pointed out Baquero Tirado.