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Puerto Rico still faces ‘complex obstacles’ 6 years post-María

Nearly six years after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the island still faces complex obstacles to full recovery. Difficult administrative processes, intricate spending requirements and challenges in addressing longstanding social and economic vulnerabilities before Maria are only some of the hurdles that have hindered the recovery, even with a historic allocation of federal disaster funds. 

These were some of the conclusions of a sit-down between Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Pamela Hughes Patenaude, to talk about the island’s reconstruction efforts during an event held by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Disaster Response Reform Task Force. The event, “What’s Next for Puerto Rico’s Recovery: A Conversation with Gov. Pierluisi,” took place at the Puerto Rico Convention Center. 

The BPC is a policy research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Its commitment is to work with representatives from all political parties to achieve sustainable policy reforms.

Hughes Patenaude served as a moderator and asked the governor about the current state of the island’s reconstruction and the areas that still need improvement, among other issues.

During the chat, Pierluisi delved into existing opportunities to make federal disaster assistance for Puerto Rico more timely, equitable, and impactful. 

Regarding his background and its impact on his work as governor, including overseeing the ongoing reconstruction, he said that his “staff across the board in the Puerto Rico government know that for me it’s absolutely indispensable that the Puerto Rico government have an excellent working relationship with the federal administration.”

“It is a top priority, and for all cabinet members, including those working on the reconstruction, to have regular, if not daily, communication with their counterparts in the U.S. government,” the governor added. “And to, at all times, ensure that we are doing all we can to expedite the reconstruction while complying with all federal procurement and compliance requirements. So, I pride myself on knowing how Washington works, working well with Washington officials, and so that is what I want all my colleagues to do.”

The governor further noted that his administration came into office about three and a half years after Hurricane Maria hit the island, “so a lot of the preliminary work, emergency work, had been done already by then.”

He mentioned that the creation of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3) was a “good idea.” 

“We were following the New Orleans model when we did that,” he said. “And so, Manuel Laboy, who I appointed for that job continued leading COR3 and improving it, meaning, among other things, streamlining what COR3 does.”

Pierluisi noted that Laboy accomplished “encouraging” the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to speed up the FEMA Accelerated Awards Strategy (FAASt) program. The program was created to address energy, water, sewage, housing and the Puerto Rico Education Department, and allows critical infrastructure projects to be grouped together to expedite energy grid work on the island.

“One area I politely complained about was this EHP process that FEMA goes through, the Environmental Historic Preservation review,” he said. “One thing I have pointed out, which I am not sure has been done already, is for FEMA to rely on that type of work on the part of sophisticated subrecipients or the contractors of subrecipients. Let’s say LUMA in the area of transmission and distribution of energy or the Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority with its contractors in that area, now Genera PR in the generation area — those are sophisticated players that can do that work on their own. What FEMA’s role should be is simply to review, but a short review.”

As for HUD, he said his administration achieved lifting restrictions imposed by the federal agency last year. Since then, Pierluisi said, the flow of Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds “has improved quite a bit.” 

Meanwhile, the governor acknowledged concerns that the reconstruction is not progressing quickly enough.

“Well, let me tell them, compare Puerto Rico with New York and New Jersey after [Hurricane] Sandy,” he said. “Compare Puerto Rico to New Orleans after [Hurricane] Katrina, even compare Puerto Rico with Florida after [Hurricane] Irma and what you will see is that we are doing just as well or better. When you look at those places, they have taken up to 15 years to spend all the funding they received from FEMA.”

He also noted that so far it has taken five and half years, and it will likely take another eight years to finish reconstruction work on the island. It could take as much as 10 more years to finish spending all the funding available for various projects.

Former Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil-Enseñat, a member of the BPC, also acknowledged that Puerto Rico still faces significant obstacles in achieving full recovery nearly six years after Hurricane Maria made landfall. 

“Our experiences here illustrate the challenges that persist in the federal disaster recovery system, and it’s imperative to look beyond challenges and work to ensure Puerto Rico and other places like it can benefit from a full recovery,” Gil-Enseñat said.

Author Details
Author Details
Maria Miranda is an investigative reporter and editor with 20 years of experience in Puerto Rico’s English-language newspapers. In that capacity, she has worked on long-term projects and has covered breaking news under strict deadlines. She is proficient at mining data from public databases and interviewing people (both public figures and private sector individuals). She is also a translator, and has edited and translated an economy book on Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis. She worked as an interpreter for FEMA during the recent recovery efforts of Hurricane María and earned her FEMA badge.

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