The biggest problem of the Recovery Plan is what the document does not say, summarized yesterday Jenifer de Jesus Soto, Recovery Efforts Coordinator of the Taller Salud (Health Workshop) organization.
The Plan, drafted by the local Housing Department, outlines how the first $ 1.5 billion allocation in federal funds that will arrive in Puerto Rico as part of the reconstruction process after Hurricanes Irma and María will be used.
The public comment period on the document ended on May 25 disappointing many community organizations that did not have time to fully verify it or consult with its members the investment proposal of the government, explained Mariel Quiñones Mundo, community coordinator of Ayuda Legal Huracán María (Hurricane Maria Legal Assistance). This organization seeks to protect citizens' rights after the emergency.
"The concern is about the lack of knowledge. It's a generic plan, very vague. There are no criteria of how people could access those houses that will be built or the programs that will be created. There is no detail," said De Jesus Soto.
There were only 14 days, since the action plan was published, to submit the comments, so many organizations could not express themselves, said the coordinator of Taller Salud.
"This has been a rushed process. Here they only gave space to municipalities, but very little to the communities as such," said Quiñones Mundo.
She also stressed the importance of the process, since the decisions about the plan will dictate the recovery process after Hurricane Maria.
There are $ 1.5 million that would be used to rehabilitate or build houses, assist in the payment of mortgages, relocation of communities in at-risk areas, community resilience and initiatives that also seek to boost economic development.
The Housing Version
However, to some extent, the lack of details in the action plan has its purpose. According to the Secretary of Housing, Fernando Gil Enseñat, no funds are being tied to specific projects or communities in order to have flexibility when developing initiatives.
"With this type of plan, we cannot tie our hands by saying that on this or that a place such project will be implemented. If we did so, we might find ourselves with obstacles on the way to do works and thus lose money because we cannot use it for anything different than what is in the plan, "said the official.
However, the Puerto Rican Planning Society perceives that this specific breakdown between the initiatives and the communities that would be benefited is necessary to ensure that the money goes where it is really necessary.
"The action plan cannot ignore our needs," said the president of the Society, David Josué Carrasquillo, in written statements.
Many of the organizations, including the Coalition of Coalitions, the Matria and Espacios Abiertos (Open Spaces) project, requested the comment period to be extended. Local Housing rejected the request, while the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did not even answer communications regarding the issue.
Delay in Recovery
Gil Enseñat said that, if the comment period is extended, the release of federal funds would be delayed and, therefore, so would the recovery and reconstruction works. Generally, Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) require an intensive community consultation process. In this case, because it is a subsidy to address a natural disaster, the consultation process is more flexible to accelerate the disbursement of funds and the start of reconstruction.
Therefore, according to Gil Enseñat, the federal requirement was to publish the Recovery Plan, and open a public comment period, which does not necessarily imply holding hearings.
Even so, at the request of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, the secretary assured that six hearings and eight community workshops were held to integrate as many people as possible to the process.
"The same notice excludes us from the normal participation process ... Even so, although hearings were optional, we held," said Gil Enseñat.
In total, 104 comments were received, some of which are being incorporated into the document that will be submitted for HUD evaluation on June 15.
For example, according to Gil Enseñat, the Casa Taft 169 organization stressed that in the reconstruction processes, abandoned spaces in urban centers should be used to promote the repopulation of these areas.
"That's something we're adopting," he said.
But the recommendations did not stop there. De Jesús Soto, coordinator of Taller Salud, for example, stressed that when residents of Loíza were consulted about the plan, they showed great concern about the vagueness of the document. For example, there are relocations of communities’ proposals, but they do not state which ones would be affected or the criteria to determine when a neighborhood should be relocated. This leaves the projects open at the discretion of the officials on duty.
Nor were there details about who would benefit from houses reconstruction to ensure that the assistance will go to those sectors that really need it.
"The concern is due to the lack of knowledge on the process," said De Jesus Soto.
"Communities have the right to be heard because the benefit is for them... Oversight for the proper use of these funds has to start in the planning process. These funds, in other disasters, have been used by unscrupulous people," said Quiñones Mundo.
This is the first of at least two federal allocations for the recovery of Puerto Rico. The second one is about $ 18.5 billion. However, the community consultation process of the second allocation has not begun, since HUD has not published the parameters for the use of those funds yet.