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According to HUD, it was not until two weeks ago - February 8 - that the funds began to be disbursed. (GFR Media)
According to HUD, it was not until two weeks ago - February 8 - that the funds began to be disbursed. (GFR Media)

Washington - 17 months after Hurricane María hit the island, the disbursements made by the federal government total about $ 19 billion, according to an analysis by El Nuevo Día.

Out of that package, only $ 1.507 billion granted through the Community Development Block Grant Program for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) are related to the reconstruction process promoted by the government after the disaster that caused nearly 3,000 deaths and an estimate of more than $ 100 billion in damage.

Although the release of $ 18.987 billion has helped to mitigate the emergency, less than half has directly gone to the government's budget.

For example, $ 5 billion were allocated for the repair the power grid, and although it represented a saving for the government of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Electric Power Authority (PREPA) left the job almost exclusively in the hands of American companies.

Loans authorized by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) - for a total of $ 2.206 billion – and CDBG-DR funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that were granted to municipalities - which total $ 294.4 million – are also included in the estimate of disaster relief funds to address the emergency caused by Hurricane María.

While the delivery of federal funds strictly directed to the island´s reconstruction still moves slowly, the disbursements that have been corroborated represent 42 percent of the $ 45 billion already allocated or promised to Puerto Rico.

However, those resources only represent a 19 percent of the $ 100 billion in federal funds that the Puerto Rican government's most optimistic recovery and reconstruction plan projects.

Since Hurricane María hit the island, and up until February 13, FEMA had disbursed $ 2.257 billion to the island´s central government in disbursements related to emergency work.

Meanwhile, FEMA has disbursed $ 262.6 million in emergency allocations to municipalities -including funds to cover the cost of debris removal- and $ 294.4 million in CDBG-DR loans.

FEMA assistance to the central government, since 2017, is less than the $ 3.4 billion that the Oversight Board estimated that the Treasury would receive only this fiscal year, which ends in June.

Carlos Mercader, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) indicated that, sometimes, delays in FEMA seem intentional because they are caused by a lack of decision-making or how to implement the structure (for permanent works) and the way to evaluate damage and costs.

In a recent interview, Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the Board, acknowledged that the release of federal funds is more slowly than projected and argued that the cause of the delays is both in Washington D.C. and in San Juan.

A spokesman for FEMA said it was "irresponsible" to speak of an intentional delay.

"FEMA has not blocked the assistance nor has it delayed any disbursement. There is no evidence that FEMA has intentionally delayed the disbursement of funds for the recovery process, "said Juan Andrés Muñoz, director of External Affairs at FEMA in Puerto Rico.

On the other hand, according to the projections made by Ángela Ávila, Executive Director of the Health Insurance Administration(ASES, Spanish acronym), the island's Treasury should have claimed by the end of February about $ 3.22 billion of the $ 4,8 billion in Medicaid funds that Congress authorized to help with the recovery of the health system.

Recently, in an interview, Ávila said that since January 2018, the government has used about $ 230 million of emergency Medicaid funds.

Unless there is a new legislation to amend its use, the government has until September - when the federal fiscal year 2019 ends - to use all the money, Mercader said.

Assistance for Families

According to a study by the University of Michigan released in January, six months after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, victims had received $ 13 billion in FEMA assistance.

On the island, on the other hand, assistance to families and individuals until last week was one- sixth of the aid granted to Texas. Official data indicate that, up until February 13, FEMA had distributed $ 2.3 billion to families and individuals in Puerto Rico.

 In general terms, researchers from the University of Michigan found - as has been reported by El Nuevo Día - that the federal response to the emergency caused by Hurricane María in Puerto Rico was slow and inefficient, when compared with the response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Reconstruction

While the recovery process has been slow, for the government of Puerto Rico the problem was bigger when considering the access to funds that will have an impact on the reconstruction process.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) authorized the disbursement of the first $ 1.507 billion - of almost $ 20 billion - in CDBG-DR funds just a few days ago.

 In a letter to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), who requested information from HUD on this issue,  HUD deputy Secretary for The Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations (OCIR) Len Wolfson said that it was not until January 10 that the government of Puerto Rico provided all the banking information necessary to deposit the funds.

However, Wolfson also accepted that the partial shutdown of federal government offices, which lasted 35 days - from December 22 to January 25 - delayed the work.

Puerto Rico Secretary of Housing Fernando Gil Enseñat said that the account has been open since September 2018, and that they submitted all the banking information on December 27 and it was not until January 8, 2019 -because of the federal partial shutdown and / or the Christmas season - that HUD requested more information.

 According to HUD, it was not until two weeks ago - February 8 - that the funds began to be disbursed.

The Puerto Rican government has been particularly critic of FEMA treating the island as a "high risk jurisdiction" when estimating the costs of permanent work projects. Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares claimed before Congress that FEMA does not agree to cover the cost of repairing previous damage in public infrastructure.

FEMA's refusal to include the reconstruction of previously damaged infrastructure has reduced, according to the Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, the estimated $ 1.4 billion -that the agency would invest in permanent works in 64 schools- to about $ 425 million.

Mercader affirmed that, in Puerto Rico, FEMA has processed, without disbursing funds, the documents related to 64 permanent work projects.

A few days ago, FEMA authorized the first two permanent work projects: the relocation of Dos Ríos and Alturas de Ciales housing projects, for $ 18.8 million. 

Mercader said that in Louisiana, a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 10,091 projects totaling $ 1,527 billion were approved,

Transparency

The website of the government of Puerto Rico does not allow to access updated information on the allocations and disbursement process.

Omar Marrero, director of the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO),  said that the intention is to provide more information to that published in the "transparency portal" Recovery.pr, which was a FFEMA requirement.

 This transparency portal - created through an $ 88 million contract with CGI Technologies & Solution- provides information on the balance of FEMA allocations and disbursements to the central government, municipalities and nonprofits. However, it does not include information on other federal agencies disbursements to departments such as Education, and Transportation, which have been promised a total of $1 billion.

"The portal still lacks a lot of information," insisted Cecille Blondet, executive director of the Espacios Abiertos study group, who has made recommendations in order to comply with the guidelines of international transparency, to disclose disbursements that do not come from FEMA and how funds are invested geographically and the list of contractors.

Marrero indicated that they intend to disclose contractors’ information once permanent works financed by FEMA begin.

After the government presented a plan stating they expect to obtain up to $ 100 billion in federal funds - above the projections of the Board -, Blondet noted that clear accountability will help to have better access to funds.

"We have seen that they have made some changes, but they are still very few changes."

 The executive director of Espacios Abiertos said that full transparency on allocations and disbursements will allow monitoring "the appalling deficit in the projections of the fiscal plan" on access to emergency funds.

Joanisabel González collaborated with this story.