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Op-Ed: Federal government fails Puerto Rico — again!

2017 was a terrible year. Some of the largest hurricanes in U.S. history, along with devastating wildfires in California and elsewhere, provided a clear indicator of the ravages we can expect from the climate crisis. Thousands of Americans lost their homes, their belongings, their livelihoods, even their lives.

In response, Congress appropriated $587 million to help the impacted communities recover and better prepare for future disasters. It tasked the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) with administering this 2018 Disaster Supplemental Appropriation through 6 regional EDA offices. This FAQ page provides details on that program.

Because it was one of the hardest hit locations (suffering the likely highest death toll from a natural disaster in U.S. history) Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands were allocated almost 1/3 of the $587 million (~$191 million), to be administered by the EDA’s Philadelphia regional office.

So, how have those EDA offices lived up to their responsibility to help our fellow citizens?

The public record is clear that five of those offices have responsibly managed the funds under their control. The sixth has failed miserably. The graphic above tells the story.

At the beginning of the program (August 2018), the Philadelphia office was roughly in sync with the other offices. In all, 41 grants were made under this program in 2018 from all the EDA offices (summaries are published on the EDA website; click the plus signs and look for 2018 Disaster Supplemental funding).

Eight were for Puerto Rico (all issued within an eight-week period) for a total of $18,924,890 (~1/10th of the total allocation) and one for the USVI for $304,000. The last grant in 2018 for Puerto Rico was made the week of Oct. 5-11, 2018. Thereafter the Philadelphia office did not make a single additional award in support of Puerto Rico for almost nine months, and then only one!

And though the government shutdown at the end of 2018 caused a delay of about one month, the other EDA offices continued to award grants throughout 2019, issuing a total of 40 new grants as of July 19 (detailed here). It was not until the week of July 15-19 that one grant was issued for Puerto Rico, for a mere $1.2 million.   

More telling is that the funds issued by the Philadelphia office amount to just 10% of the total funds they were charged with distributing, whereas the other EDA offices have already issued 49% of the funds they were allocated (5 times the PA office!).

Instead of the almost half of available funds that other regions have received, Puerto Rico has received one-tenth. In other words, the Philadelphia office still has nearly 90% of the funds under their management left to distribute!

If nothing else, these numbers clearly indicate that the Philadelphia office is way out of step with the other EDA regional offices. As Texas, Florida, California and other affected states get help, Puerto Rico waits. Why?

It’s time for Congress to start asking questions, and we encourage you take action in support of your fellow Americans in Puerto Rico by sharing this article through your own channels and by contacting your Congressional representative to request that they get some answers.  I am sure the regional director of the Philadelphia office would love to hear from you as well.

Author Michael Sauvante is executive director of National Commonwealth Group, a nonprofit that submitted a grant application to the Philadelphia office in November 2018. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research.

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