Cordillera Central region leads the way in FEMA-backed road projects
By The Star Staff
Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central and the public roads that connect the 15 municipalities that are part of it have received -- to date -- obligations totaling over $672 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to repair bridges and roads in the region, the agency said in a statement Sunday.
The roads are a key element for the safe transportation of residents and for the small businesses throughout the region recognized for its touristic and cultural value, Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator José G. Baquero pointed out.
“The reconstruction in this region brings with it other collateral benefits, such as activity in surrounding businesses,” he said. “We understand the positive impact of these reconstructed roads on other sectors and that is why 95 percent of these projects have funds assigned for mitigation activities to prevent this type of damage from happening again.”
In Jayuya, FEMA allocated nearly $268 million for 123 projects aimed at repairing municipal roads. One of those projects entails the repair of two municipal roads in the Limón Sector of the Mameyes neighborhood with nearly $3 million. There the asphalt and concrete curbs and gutters will be replaced, and gabion walls and metal rails will be installed.
Jayuya Mayor Jorge González Otero said the road repairs in the agricultural coffee-growing region not only benefit the residents, but also have an impact on the economic sector, since near his town is the Tierra Alta Agritourism Project, a coffee plantation where a hot air balloon is located, among other attractions.
“People see the difference in those places where these projects have been developed with new asphalt, curbing, walls, metal railings and mitigation measures. The transformation is like night and day compared to how our roads were left after Maria, especially in this neighborhood that is the home of more than 100 families, most of them with limited resources,” González Otero said.
Mitigation measures increase resilience in projects, which was the case with Naranjito, where FEMA obligated nearly $36 million for several road projects, such as the El Banco Road in the Cedro Arriba neighborhood. About $418,000 of the allocation was assigned for mitigation measures that included a concrete curb along the road to collect and direct away runoff water and prevent erosion. Also, more than 2,500 plants were planted to protect the embankment fill and a jute mesh was placed over slopes to reduce the effects of erosion, among other measures.
Naranjito Deputy Mayor José Rafael Rodríguez said mitigation measures translate into a strengthened municipality, which was demonstrated when the rainfall associated with Hurricane Fiona did not affect the project. Likewise, this roadway serves as an alternate route in case of emergencies or when there is heavy traffic, making the repairs a source of relief for the more than 100 families that drive on the road.
“This area has schools, academies and about 10 to 12 businesses,” Rodríguez said. “In addition, there is a positive impact for tourism because many people take this road to several well-known restaurants in the area visited by people from all over the island. Also, by making the road wider, there is more space for vehicles, and it is much safer, something that is very important for residents.”
For small business owner Aníbal Luis López Vásquez, owner of a restaurant operating on highway 809 for the past six years, the damage to the roads limited access and, therefore, visits from customers and tourists to his business.
“It’s very important that these funds be allocated because they make the roads accessible to people who are nervous about road safety,” he said. “Having well-built roads in good condition that are clean and safe gives confidence to people. These repairs have a positive impact because it makes tourists and clientele feel safe, so they can enjoy our businesses and our town.”
Puerto Rico Tourism Company Executive Director Carlos Mercado said his agency greatly appreciates FEMA’s contribution to repair roads in the mountain region, which he considers “one of the most attractive for local tourism and for receiving tourists from abroad.”
“It is gratifying to have safe and accessible roads so that our citizens and visitors can enjoy the natural beauty, exquisite gastronomy, historical and cultural attributes found in this region,” Mercado said. “This project will contribute to enhancing the visitor experience and strengthen the tourism industry as an economic development tool for these municipalities and for all of Puerto Rico.”
Manuel A. Laboy Rivera, the executive director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) noted that, according to the COR3’s Quarterly Progress Report from October to December 2022, municipalities are leading close to 2,000 projects, most of which are in the Central Cordillera region, and there is an increase in projects under execution in the category of roads and bridges.
To date, FEMA has obligated over $29 billion under its Public Assistance program to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria.