Construction sector leaders ask Congress for relief from FEMA red tape
By The Star Staff
Members of the construction sector asked a U.S. legislative committee on Thursday to ease the “slow and bureaucratic process” implemented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because it has prevented the start of construction programs.
Emilio Colón Zavala, former chairman of the Puerto Rico Builders Association, told the House Committee on Natural Resources that Puerto Rico has an opportunity to become resilient but it is being wasted because FEMA has imposed certain requirements to pay for construction projects not imposed on other jurisdictions.
He noted, for instance, that the Alternative Procedures Program issues grants for permanent construction projects after a disaster and are based on fixed cost estimates during the project formulation process.
Cost estimates certified by qualified professional engineers are taken into consideration. Typically, and as required by the Stafford Act, FEMA has accepted recipients’ cost estimates from professionally licensed engineers and validated them. In addition, FEMA is accepting applicant prepared and certified fixed cost estimates in other jurisdictions.
“Only not in Puerto Rico, where FEMA prepares all cost estimates,” Colón Zavala said. “Circumventing Congress’ requirements, and deviating from its own implementation guidance, FEMA elected not to consider certified cost estimates by professionally licensed engineers mutually agreed upon between the administrator and the Puerto Rico government. Due to the magnitude of the disaster, and FEMA’s failure to expedite its own process, the result has been totally contrary to the reasoning provided in PAAP-PW [Public Assistance Alternative Procedures-Project Worksheet] to not allow applicants to submit cost estimates certified by their professionally licensed engineers as required by Section 428 of the Stafford Act.”
Eduardo Pardo, president of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America, which represents more than 300 companies, said the reconstruction process is taking much longer than expected and that in some areas, such as power, little progress has been made.
“Today, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is much weaker and more vulnerable than ever,” he said. “As recently as Monday, 175,000 of PREPA’s clients lost power for more than two hours; meanwhile, traffic between Ponce and San Juan is experiencing major interruptions after gigantic rocks detached and impacted the lanes due to unusually heavy rainfall.”
The AGC Puerto Rico president stated that recently he has seen much needed increased and ongoing activity in the use of federal funds and projects out for bid in certain areas, such as the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), which is currently executing its plan to reconstruct, improve and build new installations financed with a mixed source of funds, including FEMA and own funds.
Different from other agencies, PRASA communicates and works closely with local contractors and issues bids regularly. The island Housing Department, which manages federal Community Development Block Grant funds, has removed hurdles and implemented more efficient processes to enable more bids and construction activity, he said.
Pardo also said certain municipalities, after so many years and obstacles, have been able to access funds and are issuing bids for projects of different magnitude and nature.
“However, other areas are stuck, especially the electrical power grid,” he said. “Rehabilitation and modernization of Puerto Rico’s power grid should be the number 1 priority for everyone on the island and the mainland. However, five years after Hurricane Maria, AGC Puerto Rico doesn’t know of any significant projects currently underway to achieve a resilient and modern network.”