FEMA Chief: ‘We’re bringing an unbelievable amount of common sense’ to PR recovery
As Puerto Rico begins to transition from the response phase to recovery, Michael Byrne, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coordinating officer for Puerto Rico, said the process moving forward will include an “unbelievable amount of common sense” and experience from prior disasters to rebuild the island.
Byrne, who has been named as the Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator, has more than 30 years of experience in disaster management and recovery program execution, including serving as the FDRC for Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and the FCO for Hurricane Sandy in New York and the 2011 Alabama tornadoes.
As the FDRC and FCO, Byrne will work with the government of Puerto Rico and federal response leadership to facilitate disaster recovery coordination and collaboration between Puerto Rico, federal and municipal governments, private sector entities, and voluntary, faith-based and community organizations.
In that role, Byrne will closely interact with the Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), a new entity that Gov. Ricardo Rosselló vowed will undertake Puerto Rico’s reconstruction process with full transparency.
“We will work closely with him [Byrne] and all federal agencies to restore normalcy as quickly as possible,” said Rosselló, who signed an executive order creating the independent agency that will run under the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority.
Both Rosselló and Byrne agreed the new CRRO sets up the right structure and capacity for both levels of government to work together and overcome the challenges that Puerto Rico faces in its long-term recovery.
“Hurricane María was a catastrophic event for Puerto Rico. A catastrophe that required the largest operational response ever seen, as described by FEMA. Considering this reality, we reiterate that, in a joint effort with the federal government, we will develop a plan to rebuild the island in a stronger and safer way,” Rosselló said.
Rosselló explained that the CRRO will have state and federal fiscal controls to ensure there is transparency in the recovery process. FEMA must approve all projects and disbursements before the government executes them, to avoid another Whitefish Energy fiasco.
Furthermore, FEMA will oversee the use of the federal relief funding Puerto Rico receives. The island has requested $64 billion from U.S. Congress so far.
Among the entities that will safeguard this transparency are: the Office of the Inspector General of the United States; its counterpart in Puerto Rico; the Office of the Comptroller of Puerto Rico; the Office of Government Ethics; the Board of Directors of the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority; a Joint Legislative Commission; the Bidding and Procurement Group of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority; and an independent auditor that has yet to be selected.
“We’ve had to deal with a complicated fiscal situation and on top of that two hurricanes that destroyed everything in their path,” Rosselló said.
“It is essential we unite to move Puerto Rico forward and leave a better future for the next generations. I thank the people of Puerto Rico for their resilience and to our public workers who despite being survivors themselves have been working tirelessly in the recovery,” the governor added.
Due to the complex recovery challenges of Hurricane Maria, Byrne said the federal government will leverage all available resources in support of Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. Areas of focus will include:
- Housing, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to develop adequate, affordable, and accessible housing solutions for Hurricane Maria survivors.
- Infrastructure Systems, coordinated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to efficiently facilitate the restoration of infrastructure systems and services to support viable, sustainable communities and improve resilience to, and protection from, future hazards.
- Economic Recovery, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, to assist with sustaining or restoring businesses and employment in the affected area, and developing economic opportunities in these communities.
- Health and Social Services, led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to support locally led recovery efforts to address public health, health care facilities and coalitions, and essential human services.
- Natural and Cultural Resources, led by the Department of Interior, will work with communities wishing to preserve, protect and restore natural and cultural resources — such as historic structures — during recovery; and
- Community Planning and Capacity Building, coordinated by FEMA, to facilitate support among a variety of partners for the planning, capacity, and resilience building capabilities needed by local or tribal governments following this disaster.
“These lead federal agencies will work with other supporting agencies for long-term recovery with a singular focus of restoring functional and resilient communities and local economies,” Byrne said.
Survivors approved for TSA, no local properties leased yet
Meanwhile, FEMA Spokesperson Daniel Llargues confirmed that there are 1,543 Hurricane María applicants benefiting from the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program in Puerto Rico and are currently checked-in to hotels (4,010 household members) in 1,608 rooms in 30 states. Puerto Rico has 358 applicants with 382 rooms occupied in 26 hotels.
“TSA is only one of several short-term sheltering options being offered, allowing eligible disaster survivors to shelter in a hotel or motel, for a limited period of time,” he said.
“This is a bridge to other longer-term housing solutions. FEMA makes payments directly to participating hotels and motels for room rental and taxes up to the GSA rate. Survivors are responsible for all other costs such as room service, laundry, parking, pet fees, telephone or other services,” he noted.
The program application-to-approval process time is 48 to 72 hours. However each applicant and case is different.
The TSA program for Puerto Rican survivors began Oct. 31, 2017 and FEMA reviews each case for continuing eligibility every 30 days. For seamless program continuity, it’s important for survivors to stay in contact with FEMA and update their status and contact information regularly, he said.
As for the implementation and participation in two other FEMA programs that offer direct leasing of local vacant properties, Llargues said while “there has been a lot of interest from property owners, and no properties are participating at this time.”
“We’re still identifying those who want to participate in the program. Once they are reviewed, they are also inspected to ensure feasibility,” he said.
FEMA runs the Direct Lease/Direct Assistance to Disaster Survivors program under which it leases vacant units that are used as temporary housing for disaster survivors. FEMA pays the rent for these units. Utility costs and other expenses not covered in the lease are the responsibility of the disaster survivor.
“FEMA will notify disaster survivors that they are eligible for FEMA-leased units as units become available,” the spokesman said.
Under the Multi-Family Lease and Repair and Direct Assistance to Disaster Survivors programs FEMA can make repairs to rental properties with vacant rental units through an agreement that allows the agency to lease the vacant units once they are repaired.
FEMA leases the vacant units, which are used as temporary housing for disaster survivors. FEMA pays the rent for these units, while utility costs and other expenses not covered in the lease are the responsibility of the disaster survivor.