The devastation caused by Hurricane Fiona in Villa Esperanza, Salinas.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Fiona in Villa Esperanza, Salinas. (Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

Utuado - President Joe Biden yesterday authorized Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s request to declare a major disaster on the island following the devastation caused by Hurricane Fiona.

The approval opens the door for the Puerto Rico government, municipalities and citizens to claim and access aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through two programs: public assistance and individual assistance.

FEMA must now establish disaster recovery centers where people can apply for assistance. The federal agency will also deploy task forces that will assist the affected communities.

By press time, FEMA still did not have data available on when and where these centers would be located.

In a visit to Utuado with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, Pierluisi celebrated Biden’s endorsement of his request.

“The federal government today (yesterday) approved our request for a major disaster declaration for Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Fiona. This ensures that our people will have access to additional FEMA assistance to recover from the damage caused by this event,” the governor said through social networks.

La Fortaleza told this newspaper that today they should have the detail on the scope of that declaration.

Pierluisi had requested full assistance, but the federal government decides on that matter. Normally, it approves the request in a 75 percent to 25 percent ratio. In other words, FEMA provides three-quarters of the requested assistance and the rest is covered by the government.

The governor has anticipated that Fiona could leave billions of dollars in damages on the island due to its heavy rains and devastating floods.

He has asked people to get ready to submit claims to FEMA and to start documenting the damage with photos, and to make the corresponding claims to the insurance companies, in case they have coverage.

Yesterday, Pierluisi acknowledged that some reconstruction projects resulting from the devastation left by Hurricane María five years ago could be delayed even more because of the new damages caused by Fiona.

Possible delays

The governor alluded to that issue when asked by El Nuevo Día and after observing, in Utuado, how a temporary bridge, placed four years ago - after María - on the PR-123 highway in the Salto Arriba neighborhood, collapsed with the heavy rains brought by Fiona.

“There are other works in which this could have happened,” Pierluisi said.

He said that Utuado Mayor Jorge Pérez does not want a new temporary bridge but a permanent one.

The mayor prefers a permanent bridge be. He does not want a temporary one. Partly because here there is an alternate route, that people can use and it is only five to 10 minutes more, that is, it is better to go straight to the permanent one,” explained the governor while Pérez was looking at him. Until yesterday, Pérez had more than thirty Utuadeños unable to leave their homes located in the Viví neighborhood, La Cuchilla sector, the San Gabriel sector and the Parcelas Pons sector in the Paso Palmas neighborhood.

Pierluisi stressed that damages - from severe to moderate - to current reconstruction projects after María will be reevaluated to, if necessary, change them. He acknowledged that this may cause delays.

“There, what we are going to do is modify the scopes of work and obviously, in coordination with FEMA, to make them better, to make them more resilient,” he said.

The FEMA administrator echoed the governor. “We want to continue moving projects that were already underway as a result of Maria. We will look at additional damages, but we are not going to roll back what we have already started,” she said.

Questioned about the little credibility FEMA has in the island’s general perception of its performance in the past years, Criswell said: “We have thousands of people who are here helping with the reconstruction after Maria. Ninety percent are Puerto Ricans. They are working on the recovery.”

The director of the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3), Manuel Laboy, told this newspaper that he has already begun talks with FEMA officials about the reevaluations that will have to be made to projects under construction and others in the design stage that are part of the recovery work on the island five years after María.

According to COR3, 20.76 percent of the reconstruction projects financed with FEMA funds after the disaster have been completed, while 67 percent is in the permits stage, 37.85 percent in construction and another 29.31 percent is still in the design phase.

“The construction ones are the ones that we’re going to have to look at a little more closely because the question is what was damaged from the stage that was already under construction and what remained to be built if it was damaged. In both instances, my expectation is that it’s going to require some adjustments where FEMA is going to have to do several things: add more work and also more money,” Laboy said.

💬See comments