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FEMA approves 500-plus hazard mitigation proposals for evaluation

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program’s (HMGP) Section 404 approved on Wednesday 525 letters of intention (LOIs) from municipalities, agencies, and private non-profit organizations in Puerto Rico to be evaluated for risk mitigation.

Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience Executive Director Ottmar Chávez said the approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program is moving the recovery from Hurricane Maria forward, as more than 2,200 permanent projects have been approved for evaluation. Likewise, around 1,600 of those have been approved and funded by Section 404.

“We are glad that organizations such as the Martín Peña Channel, proposals handed in by the [island’s] mayors, healthcare entities, private hospitals and the University of Puerto Rico have critical mitigation projects,” Chávez said at a press conference. “This ensures that, in the future, what we have seen for years on the island will not happen again or, if it does, we are able to minimize any damage.”

Section 404 manages a total of $3.999 billion in federal funds, $2.999 billion under HGMP and $1 billion under the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program. The sectors that will hold priority for the risk mitigation projects are water, training, communications, economy, public buildings, education, energy, towns, natural and cultural resources, health, social services, transportation and housing.

FEMA Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands Federal Coordinator Alex Amparo said he is satisfied with seeing more projects approved by HGMP, after 521 letters of intention were considered in June. He added that risk mitigations are key for an effective recovery, and the approvals are an essential step toward a resilient island.

“The truth is that this country needs to see that shovel on the land, breaking ground, through different projects that are pending.” Amparo said. “FEMA is here to invest in Puerto Rico’s future; we do nothing by replacing things with what existed before. What we want to do, especially with these funds, is something better.”

Caño Martín Peña ENLACE Project Executive Director Mario Nuñez Mercado was grateful that his proposal was one of the 525 proposals chosen for evaluation. His project, Caño Norte, consists of connecting the Israel and Bitumul neighborhoods to a sanitary system that prevents wastewater from entering potable water bodies.

“We know that we have one competitive phase left to finish until September 25,” Nuñez Mercado said. “This puts us already in a better place, as we can advance CDBG-DR funds with Joint Resolution 118 of November 19, 2019, signed by governor Wanda Vázquez, to make these accessible for the Martín Peña Channel’s reconstruction.”

One LOI approved by HMGP was a risk mitigation project for the Ariel section of Comerío. Mayor José A. Santiago said that during Hurricane Maria the urbanization was devastated as the La Plata River rose and flooded homes with more than eight feet of water.

“I must say that, since that time, until now, residents of that community do not sleep when it starts to rain,” Santiago said. “They feel like the river will devastate their home once again. It’s important that this project is approved. Obviously, we are at a starting point as we were recently told. We must demonstrate that, with the proposal we write to FEMA, its benefit exceeds its cost.”

Another LOI that was approved for evaluation was for the town of Aguas Buenas. Mayor Javier García noted that the community of Estancias del Río, which is part of the Jagüeyes Abajo neighborhood, could have a nearby ravine dredged, as its course changed after the 2017 hurricane and started flooding homes and local businesses.

“In addition to this, the critically needed electrical generators that we requested for public buildings in our municipality are included under this mitigation proposal,” García said. “This is good news, as it lets us become a stronger, more resilient town in times of emergency.”

For July, 188 applicants whose LOIs were approved include 65 proposals from the health sector, 18 for housing, six for training and development, three for natural and cultural resources, 27 for education, which includes all University of Puerto Rico campuses, four for the economic sector, nine for public buildings and 56 municipalities.