Governor declares 3-year disaster recovery after post-Hurricane Maria has been 'significant'
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
With thousands of Puerto Rico’s families still living under blue tarps, others still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt and island mayors pointing out stumbling blocks in their towns’ recovery three years after Hurricane Maria, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced declared on Thursday that disaster recovery has been “significant” as approval for disaster recovery projects has gone up by 300 percent.
During a roundtable held by the governor in the Experimental Room at the Santurce Fine Arts Center, Vázquez said that even though there’s much work left to do, the island government, in one year, has “sped up, obligated and disbursed” more disaster recovery funds than were disbursed after both hurricanes Harvey and Katrina in the United States, something she also deemed ‘’significant.”
“It has been the longest federal response amid a disaster in the history of the United States,” the governor said. “You all saw in the images more than 1,315 electrical generators installed, over $1.5 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Individual and Family Assistance Program, where almost 900,000 surviving families [received assistance for] housing repairs, rent and other related expenses.”
“Since January 2020, there has been a general obligation for around 389 projects approved,” Vázquez said. “When we entered, there were fewer than 100 projects approved per month. Up to today [Thursday], 4,598 projects and over $7.2 billion have been obligated. That’s our reality.”
During the hourlong presentation, the governor said that around $1.2 billion have been allocated to municipalities and mayors have access to it. She said “the training is being given, and it is in the hands of the municipalities to request the training.”
However, the governor added, “of the first funding” of $1.2 billion, “only 19 mayors have requested [the training].”
“It is important that all mayors if they have a need, give us the opportunity to help them,” she said.
“In the first agreement of $8.2 billion, they were approved on October 14, 2018; that money was unavailable because there was no communication,” Vázquez said. “Once we arrived [in office] In August 2019, we started seeing an open space to communicate with the federal government, especially with HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], that we were going to work correctly and it helped us sign an August 2019 agreement in February 2020.”
Meanwhile, island Housing Secretary Luis Fernández Trinchet said there are 17 ongoing programs funded with $1.223 billion in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program funds. Nonetheless, he said, many municipalities have not used the federal funds or participated in the programs.
“If municipalities have the perception that I will give them the money for simply telling me that they will build a 15-housing-unit building or simply by sending me a letter, the CDBG-DR program doesn’t work that way. There are a number of requirements,” Fernández Trinchet said. “Housing does not intervene in the decisions of the municipalities. But the program is there. The doors are open. We have been proactive, we have held summits to explain this to mayors. Housing staff go to their municipalities.”
Meanwhile, FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer for Puerto Rico Alex Amparo said the public should not “not focus on the negative” of the slow disaster recovery amid the hurricane that hit Puerto Ricans on Sept. 20, 2017, but rather should “look at the positive [side], what is happening and what we are doing together.”
Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience Executive Director Ottmar Chávez said the U.S. Congress designated $49.9 billion for the recovery of Puerto Rico, of which some $25 billion have been obligated -- in other words, destined for a particular purpose. Of that latter sum, some $16.6 billion have been disbursed, he said.
According to the island Housing Department’s Repair, Reconstruction or Relocation Program (R3) Construction Status, there are 367 houses inpre-construction, 421 under construction, and 103 have been completed.
On July 2, as the Star reported, the government finally announced the construction of the first home damaged by Hurricane Maria under R3.