Back to the bureaucratic logjam
Mayors again take on the task of accelerating pace of island’s reconstruction
By Richard Gutiérrez
A quite infamous and controversial subject on the island is the overall post-Hurricane Maria reconstruction and when it is going to happen for real, as it has been nearly six years and residents are still wondering whether some promises will be fulfilled, or when the signs of progress will become readily apparent.
Municipal administrations are becoming desperate for answers, which is why on Thursday the Puerto Rico Mayors Association gathered to discuss some key points related to the current state of the reconstruction of the island. The Mayors Association, which groups municipal chief executives belonging to the Popular Democratic Party, presented a comprehensive survey on the current state of the reconstruction via a press conference exactly one year after the effects of Hurricane Fiona and nearly six years after the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria. Mayors Association President Luis Javier Hernández Ortiz, alongside members of the association’s Reconstruction Committee and island Reps. Juan José Santiago Nieves, Jesús “Chui” Hernández Arroyo and Marially González Huertas, presented the survey while also offering some recommendations for rectifying the situation.
“During the past few years, we have been able to secure various agreements to facilitate the process of recovery after an emergency,” said Hernández Ortiz, who is the mayor of Villalba. “For example with the Department of Transportation [DTOP by its Spanish acronym], PRASA [Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority] and the Housing Department, and with LUMA Energy we are currently in the process of the same [type of] agreement.”
“This has happened after many years of trying to make the government understand that we municipal leaders, the first responders, need the resources in order to fix our towns,” he added. “It took us a long time to even get to the point where we could work together with DTOP to get stuff done with the streets.” Hernández Ortiz also noted that LUMA has been difficult to deal with because, he said, the private operator of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) transmission and distribution system didn’t accept that there was a law that allowed mayors to notify PREPA and after five days go in and fix the energy system in their respective towns.
“It was then when many municipalities had to start speeding up the recovery process and reconstruct the energy infrastructure,” the Villalba mayor said. “In fact, in my town we had to restore more than 60 percent of the infrastructure in order to provide power to our residents, and once we were done we had to move on to the municipality of Ponce to help the mayor of Ponce reconstruct his energy system.”
“We did all of this with threats of jail from the government and from the ex-president of LUMA, who stated that he was not going to comply with the law,” Hernández Ortiz added. “On the other hand, the point of view of the new president of LUMA is completely different. He does want us to go forward with things like this; he just wants us to manage it with better communication. He recognizes that there is legislation and that municipalities can do it.”
Needless to say there is much to discuss regarding the island’s reconstruction process and how it is being handled, but for the Mayors Association, one of the biggest issues is the existing bureaucracy.
“Especially the famous agreement from 2017 between the government and FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] in relation to the management of disbursements,” noted Vega Baja Mayor Marcos Cruz Molina, “which after an evaluation by our Reconstruction Committee, was determined to be discriminatory, and we faced it.”
Hernández Ortiz pointed out that it was because of that agreement that the island’s recovery was completely paralyzed.
“So we got on a plane and went to Washington, D.C. in March 2021,” he said. “We engaged with the [federal] government and in September of 2021 we were finally able to seal a historic agreement which in a sense facilitated the process drastically.” Even though the recovery process was eased somewhat as a result of that effort, there are still plenty of problems that mayors are facing. For example, there is the overall rise in costs of materials and a lack of manpower, which are considered especially difficult to overcome because of the sparse availability of contractors and a lack of certainty in terms of projects related to Hurricane Maria, which were set back even more by Hurricane Fiona. Also unclear is the status of disbursements related to Hurricane Fiona and the overall slowness in terms of reimbursements for emergency work related to that September 2022 storm.
As part of the presentation, it was stated that in the case of the Department of Education, of the $1.7 billion allocated only $19 million has been spent, which represents 0.11% of the total. In the case of projects, out of 2,023, only 127 have been carried out, for 6.27%. A similar situation exists with PREPA, where $11 billion has been allocated and there is only $500 million under construction, for 0.45%. With respect to the Housing Department, meanwhile, of $35.6 billion allocated, $7.9 billion has been spent, for 22.19%.
The Mayor’s Association is not inclined to rest on its laurels when it comes to the aforementioned problems. As one of the solutions its members believe they can take into their own hands, they will return once again to Washington alongside officials from the commonwealth Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency to ask for a revision of the costs based on a study of inflationary pricing, which is why island municipalities haven’t been able to execute the bidding process for a great many reconstruction projects.