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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Governor asks Congress for 100% federal matching on FEMA-funded grid projects

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi asked the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources to address challenges in Puerto Rico’s ongoing post-disaster reconstruction.

By The Star Staff

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia asked Congress on Thursday for 100 percent federal matching for energy-related Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-funded projects to help speed up the island’s reconstruction, and used his testimony to push for Puerto Rico statehood.

The governor testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources on the island’s reconstruction and electrical grid following the passage of hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017.

Pierluisi said that 125 years of unequal treatment have taken a toll on the American citizens living in Puerto Rico.

“Even after the successful restructuring of our public debt and the rebuilding of our infrastructure, Puerto Rico will remain hindered until our century-long status question is resolved,” he said. “The people of Puerto Rico voted and chose permanent union with the United States through statehood as their path forward. So many Puerto Ricans have defended American democratic values at home and abroad that their lack of voting representation in Congress and voting rights is clearly unacceptable.”

Pierluisi asked the committee to address challenges in the ongoing post-disaster reconstruction. First, he asked for 100 percent federal matching for energy-related FEMA-funded projects.

“This was done in other states where catastrophic damages occurred and will enable us to use the funds that we have earmarked for the local match for additional renewable energy projects and microgrids,” the governor said. “Second, we ask that FEMA be given congressional authorization to adjust fixed cost estimates of approved permanent projects given the recent increase in the cost of construction materials and supply chain disruptions. Without this, there is a possibility that some projects will not have enough funding to be completed, putting Puerto Rico’s resiliency and reconstruction at risk.”

Thirdly, he asked Congress to support an amendment to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to authorize FEMA to consolidate disasters into a single award under DR-4339-PR for the administration of federal assistance.

“This request will ensure a sound approach to the recovery process and help lessen the administrative burden for both the government of Puerto Rico and FEMA in managing both disasters” Pierluisi said. “Lastly, we support the proposal of [Natural Resources] Chairman [Raúl] Grijalva [D-Ariz.] and other members of Congress to allocate $5 billion in directed CDBG-DR funding for residential solar energy systems on the island.”

The governor praised Congress and the Biden administration for committing significant resources to Puerto Rico’s recovery after the ravages of the 2017 hurricanes and their human and economic toll, as well as subsequent earthquakes, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the most recent Hurricane Fiona two months ago.

“I also want to underline that the assistance provided by the Biden administration to speed up access to these funds has been instrumental,” he said. “[The island Housing Department] has successfully obligated 70 percent -- approximately $7 billion -- of the more than $10 billion in CDBG-DR disaster recovery funds.”

In the Housing Department’s Repair, Reconstruction and Relocation Program, out of more than 12,000 eligible families, more than 6,400 families have been served, with 4,376 homes rebuilt and 2,027 housing vouchers granted. In addition, 1,341 residences are under construction and 973 in pre-construction, Pierluisi said.

As of today, he said, Puerto Rico has 2,132 projects under construction for a total cost of $800 million in FEMA funding. Also, 1,666 projects totaling over $1.4 billion are in the permitting process and should start construction soon. “These are projects of all sizes and types, such as critical infrastructure, community improvements and utilities, all over Puerto Rico,” the governor said.

Furthermore, “we have had significant progress in water and sewer infrastructure reconstruction, with multiple large projects already under construction, valued at $116.3 million, along with others totaling $294 million that are in the process of architectural and engineering work,” Pierluisi said. “Likewise, 26 additional water and sewer projects have been obligated by FEMA for another $828 million.”

However, he said the transformation of the electric system is certainly one of the highest priorities. “The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is still in bankruptcy, saddled with over $9 billion in bonded debt, and burdened with an antiquated infrastructure that was devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria, and for which emergency restoration work took over a year to repair,” the governor said.

Island Housing Secretary William Rodríguez Rodríguez, meanwhile, also urged Congress to help with energy infrastructure and to ease federal bureaucracy.

“Considering the fragility and current state of the system, which is in desperate need of reconstruction and rehabilitation, the recommended option for expediting recovery efforts should be to recognize electrical projects that benefit the Puerto Rico electrical power system as meeting [certain federal requirements],” he said.

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