By John McPhaul
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón on Sunday demanded concrete plans and explanations in the face of the extreme delay with which reconstruction on the island is being attended to, and characterized as a mockery the fact that only 2.5% of the projects in the areas affected by the earthquakes have been completed, according to the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) itself, on the fourth anniversary of the earthquakes that struck the south and southwest of the island.
“Signs and advertising don’t put up [cement] blocks, or [rebar] rods, much less do the work,” González Colón said in a post on social media. “The fact that, after four years, only 40 of 1,657 earthquake reconstruction projects have been completed, or 2.5%, demonstrates a lack of planning, execution, and most importantly, a sense of urgency in public management in favor of our people and the most vulnerable affected by natural disasters.”
“The municipalities of the south reported the greatest population decline because the insecurity of the infrastructure, which also includes public schools, was unsustainable for residents,” the resident commissioner added. “You have to understand that more than six years have passed since Maria and four years since the earthquakes and that only 2.5% of the projects that have to do with the effects of the tremors have been completed, which is unacceptable in any scenario.”
González Colón went on to say that “[t]his is in addition to the fact that last October several media outlets reported that $13.8 million, allocated more than three years ago for the installation of temporary rail cars at 121 schools in the South and Southwest that were affected by the earthquakes, were at risk of being lost.”
“According to a media outlet with access to a letter sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the Department of Education, on July 26 of this year, it was indicated that ‘two years later, the agency [COR3] had not submitted details on the scope of work (SOW) of the project, including the temporary or modular units that are needed in each of the campuses or the schedule to complete each stage,’” the resident commissioner and New Progressive Party gubernatorial hopeful said.
González Colón, who said she has continued to monitor both federal agencies and local entities in the disbursement and use of the billions of dollars in federal funds that she secured for the reconstruction of the island, again pointed out her concern about the risk that the money will be lost due to its lack of use and will be reassigned to other projects or that the dates of use will expire, as FEMA stated in the letter it sent to COR3 on July 26, 2023 on the issue of schools in the island’s south and southwest.
“We can understand that reconstruction is a complex process due to the meticulousness that must be applied, the work and the requirements to access the funds; however, six and four years after the natural disasters that impacted the island, we continue to see time and time again that things do not happen as the people expect and the government bureaucracy does not facilitate the processes,” she said.
The municipal administrator of Guánica, Omar Pacheco, concurred with González Colón.
On Saturday, Pacheco demanded that the central government distribute funds effectively and exercise greater agility in the process of evaluating claims to FEMA and COR3.
The Guánica official who is also a Popular Democratic Party candidate for the House of Representatives for District 21, said it is vital and imperative to promote the recovery of Guánica, Yauco, Las Marías, Lajas and Sabana Grande. Those municipalities were especially hard-hit in a territorial strip that is currently seismically active.
“According to [COR3], there are 1,617 pending projects, the vast majority in planning and design,” Pacheco said. “The slowness in the implementation of this recovery work, when we have thousands of families still without a safe roof, is inhumane and unacceptable. Citizens require strong action and, above all, progress in the implementation of projects across the region.”
Pacheco claimed that the government has to ensure that the work progresses in a timely manner by eliminating obstacles that threaten the stability of thousands of Puerto Rican families.
“The mayors and their teams have shown remarkable determination and responsiveness in the face of adversity. But at the central level, bureaucratic barriers to project implementation must be removed,” he said. “Each affected family has already experienced the pain of destruction, heartbreak, sadness and the torment of seeing in ruins what they achieved with great effort for many years. It’s not fair that they also have to be victims of a deficient government aid system.”
COR3 Executive Director Manuel A. Laboy Rivera responded later on Sunday, offering an update on the progress of reconstruction projects as a result of the earthquakes for which FEMA has obligated over $913 million. Some $428 million of that sum has been reimbursed.
“COR3 has been assisting government agencies, municipalities and nonprofit entities so that they can carry out emergency and permanent works due to past earthquakes,” Laboy Rivera said. “Certainly, the first two years had many challenges that have been overcome, including the fact that we are managing multiple disasters such as hurricanes Irma and Maria, the COVID-19 pandemic and most recently, Hurricane Fiona. However, we see greater progress and traction over the past two years due to the initiatives we have implemented in favor of their projects. For example, of three permanent works underway, today we have some 284 facilities with obligations amounting to $105.3 million that are in the stage of acquisition of design, design or acquisition of construction or construction due to the earthquakes.”
He gave as an example the municipality of Ponce, which completed the reconstruction of Francisco “Paquito” Montaner Stadium, following an allocation of some $4.5 million from FEMA. Meanwhile, Guayanilla will begin to rebuild several recreational facilities, such as Julio Rojas Reyes playground, Luis “Pegui” Mercado Stadium, Lucas Sievens athletic track, and the training pool, with an obligation amounting to $7.6 million.
In Guánica, meanwhile, $4.1 million was obligated for a project at the mayor’s office, whose demolition has been completed and its design is in process, the COR3 chief said.
During February, the demolition process for the reconstruction of the Roberto Alberdeston baseball stadium should begin, through a FEMA investment of around $2.6 million, Laboy Rivera said.