Mayors: Post-Hurricane Maria recovery ’has practically stopped’
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Through an “X-ray” of the island’s municipalities, members of the Puerto Rico Mayors Association (PRMA) said Tuesday that recovery after almost three years since the passing of Hurricane Maria “has practically stopped.”
PRMA First Vice President and Villalba Mayor Luis Javier Hernández said municipalities have confronted three years of great challenges, and the association’s obligation was to inform the island about the real situation that towns are going through.
The PRMA groups mayors from the Popular Democratic Party.
“Without a doubt, the role of the municipalities was crucial during the first weeks and months [after the hurricane], opening roads, distributing food and medicines, and assisting families,” Hernández said during a press conference. “After all this, many millions in federal funds have been announced, but the truth is that they are not arriving.”
Meanwhile, Salinas Mayor Karilyn Bonilla, who was formerly an executive director of the State Agency for Emergency Management and Disaster Administration State Agency -- now called the Emergency Management and Disaster Administration Bureau -- said the biggest stumbling block that towns have faced is the federal government’s mistrust toward the central government.
“Today we have an estimate of 25,000 families living under plastic tarps and around 70,000 homes that are in poor condition. The biggest problem is that we are in September, the peak month of the hurricane season, and Puerto Rico is more vulnerable than before,” Bonilla said. “For example, in Salinas, the Repair, Reconstruction or Relocation [R3] Program of [the island Department of] Housing has only two houses under reconstruction, out of the 300 that are on the list.”
Meanwhile, the Villalba mayor pointed out that, in the case of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), millions of dollars in federal funds were announced by the agency “that are required to be, but have not been transferred.”
“Before, 50 percent of the funds were disbursed in advance, but now it is not that way,” Hernández said. “For example, in Villalba, there is $31 million [allocated] in compulsory projects, yet only $3 million has been disbursed.”
Guayanilla Mayor Nelson Torres Yordán said it was important to insist that municipalities should be in charge of managing the aforementioned recovery funds for two “very important reasons.”
“First, municipalities have experience managing this sort of funding, with positive results on federal grounds,” Torres Yordán said. “Second of all, we are more efficient in its execution.”
Torres Yordán said his municipality, in less than a year, has requested funding for the demolition of structures damaged by the earthquakes that shook southern Puerto Rico at the beginning of the year. However, by next Monday, only 36 properties out of 800 that were evaluated will be about to begin demolition.
The mayor added that he visited Guayanilla’s Piedras Blancas community this past Monday, where, he said, three families still live under plastic tarps that were provided by “the failed project Tu Hogar Renace from the Department of Housing.”
PRMA’s official position is that the Emergency Management and Disaster Administration Bureau (NMEAD by its Spanish initials) must be “free and separated from the Department of Public Safety’s umbrella,” and the mayors called on Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced to proceed to order such a separation.
“It is a request made even by the organization of former directors of that agency, and it is even a recommendation from FEMA,” Bonilla said. “It was a mistake from the beginning. Poor emergency management has cost lives, and in the same way that the Forensic Sciences Bureau was released, it must also be done with the NMEAD.”