7 years to rebuild
In an exclusive interview, the mayor of Caguas tells the STAR about the challenges facing the city’s reconstruction
By Richard Gutiérrez
Caguas is one of the most populated municipalities in Puerto Rico, with more than 120,000 residents and many places to visit within it. The small but sprawling city about a half-hour’s drive south of San Juan is known as a capital of gastronomy, with 250 food and beverage establishments.
Obviously, just like many of the island’s municipalities, some of Caguas’ infrastructure suffered the effects of hurricanes Irma, Maria and Fiona. This was inevitably going to impact the status quo of the city, and with so many bureaucratic processes focused on disaster recovery, other parts of infrastructure, such as streets, were inevitably going to be affected.
Recently, the Caguas William Miranda Torres had a message to share with citizens as he discussed multiple projects related to the hurricanes, apart from other infrastructure projects and topics such as security, which, along with tourism, has been high on the list of priorities for Caguas. The municipality recently invested $2 million in security and $1 million on a tourism ad campaign known as “Caguas for Sure!”
To take an even deeper look into some of the issues that perhaps prevent Caguas from being the tourism juggernaut it can be, the STAR conducted a private interview with Miranda Torres, who discussed in greater detail such matters as reconstruction and public security.
“The process of reconstruction started out as something very painful, because of all the requirements that relate to federal funds, advancing throughout that bureaucratic process took four years, all from 2017 to 2021,” Miranda Torres said. “It wasn’t until early 2021 that things started to move forward. It was a very bureaucratic and tedious process; thankfully that’s over.”
“However, we’ve had two major challenges in terms of the island’s reconstruction,” the mayor continued. “One, there are not enough contractors to do everything you have to do on the island, because it’s not just one municipality, there are 78, plus government agencies. We are all fighting over contractors because there are just not enough for the amount of workload we have.”
“Two, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have made it difficult to acquire materials to rebuild the city,” he said “We currently have nearly 1,000 projects to work with, 185 of these were already in construction, while 184 are made possible by FEMA funds, with 47 of these projects already completed. “This is currently running, and in the next few months we’ll continue working on all of these projects.”
“The reality is that Caguas will take around seven years to be rebuilt starting now,” Miranda Torres said.
Why is it going to take so long to rebuild Caguas if the funding is there? the STAR asked.
“There is a key difference that greatly affects construction by government more than private construction,” the mayor said. “If I want to replace a door in my home all I have to do is buy the door and pay someone to hang it, but if I were to do it by the government’s standards, I have to design the door from scratch, then we’ve got to get quotes for it. If I buy that door from one of three suppliers -- one sells me the door for $200, the other for $225 and the last one for $300 -- the one who sold that door for $200 gets mad at me and files a lawsuit against me, so now the door has to wait for me to finish a legal process. That’s how government building works; you have to be extra careful that there are no setbacks in the process.”
The mayor went on to say that their biggest challenge right now in terms of the reconstruction of the city has to do with streets. As of the end of the Caguas fiscal year, the municipality has invested over $10 million in asphalt and has deposited over 148 million pounds of it. However, not all streets are municipally owned streets. All streets and roads around the island whose route numbers are three digits or less are commonwealth streets, not municipal streets. There are currently 22 commonwealth streets.
“I can take care of my own things, but what about things that are not mine? I don’t see the intention to attend to these issues, there are conversations and commitments, but the problem has not been handled,” Miranda Torres said. “I have made myself available to the central government for them to just give me the money and I’ll take care of it myself. Because money is not the problem; the amount of funds that this [central government] administration has to rebuild the island is over $100 billion. I do not recall an administration that has had more money than this one in my entire lifetime. You can clearly see that money means nothing when you don’t have people to manage that money properly, and these people are not managing the money properly. Managing these funds properly and quickly is something I can achieve, and if they can’t handle everything on their own, I am more than willing to help. They need to let themselves be helped …”
The mayor noted that “I have had two agreements made with the central government related to fixing streets; one of them was related to PR-172, in which the project had some leftover money that was used for other state streets.”
“This is all a big challenge because they are making everything very political,” he said.
Miranda Torres also stated that in general, the central government hasn’t been cooperative with the Municipality of Caguas, not just in terms of reconstruction, but in other aspects as well.
“I had to spend around $2 million to fix parts of state streets because there was no way that people could get to these communities,” the mayor said. “We have had countless meetings with the administration, given them hundreds of documents and estimates, yet they still don’t comply properly.”
The mayor added by way of contrast that other municipalities have cooperated with Caguas very well.
“We are like brothers and sisters,” Miranda Torres said. “We help each other out in any way we can.”