PDP president: ‘The incapacity of this administration is too costly for Puerto Rico’
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The STAR
Almost five years have passed since Hurricane Maria barreled across Puerto Rico, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in material losses and an unimaginable toll on the minds of residents.
Since then, Puerto Rico has had $62.3 billion available to reconstruct the island. Currently, only one project -- a bridge in Barranquitas -- is underway.
That sums up what Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago put on display Wednesday in his presentation “Disaster: Five Years After Hurricane Maria; the Incapability of the Pierluisi Administration.”
“When we see the non-utilization of the allocated funds and their poor use to restructure the infrastructure of electric power, housing, education, road and port infrastructure, it shows that the government has been incapable of solving these problems despite having billions of dollars in allocated funds,” Dalmau Santiago said.
According to the Popular Democratic Party president’s complaint, the key to the “disaster” is the fact that poor management, zero strategic planning and lack of follow-up “are the recipe for the total disaster of this administration, and this is not because I am saying so; here we are going to see federal reports from the General Accounting Office (GAO) and from Homeland Security that certify the inability of this administration to address the issues.”
In its most recent report, the GAO issued two recommendations: the first is that the federal government should identify the risks related to Puerto Rico’s recovery in terms of both internal and external factors, especially the government’s inability to carry out the projects for which it has the resources and which are necessary for recovery.
“What I am denouncing today is being denounced by the federal government, saying that the administration of Pedro Pierluisi is incapable of carrying out the projects for which it has the resources and which are necessary for the recovery,” Dalmau Santiago said.
The second recommendation made by the GAO is that the federal government must constantly monitor Puerto Rico’s recovery process because of doubts about the Pierluisi administration’s capabilities. In both requests, the Department of Homeland Security concurred.
The GAO made recommendations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with the island government, to take action and identify areas in need of urgent recovery and the island’s ability to make the necessary repairs in the aftermath of Maria.
According to the GAO, as of January 2021, Puerto Rico had $17.5 billion in recovery funds for permanent works and had only spent $158 million, less than one percent.
Dalmau Santiago pointed out that $45.8 billion was allocated for reconstruction work, but “the Pierluisi administration, of the five stages of project management, has not gone beyond the first: conception and initialization,” the Senate president said.
He said $10.705 billion has been allocated for the reconstruction of the electrical infrastructure, and only $38 million has been used.
Dalmau Santiago detailed that the Puerto Rico government has $12.2 billion in FEMA funds for electrical infrastructure. Of this, $5.5 billion is for power grid distribution projects and $2.6 billion for power transmission.
“However, instead of rebuilding the country’s electrical grid, the Pierluisi administration has given us six [rate] increases, equivalent to 53% in the cost per kilowatt-hour for each Puerto Rican family,” he said. “To date, the Puerto Rico government has only been able to present contracts for $38 million to reconstruct the electrical grid. This amount makes a mockery of Puerto Rico’s needs and jeopardizes the country’s economic development.”
On the housing issue, Dalmau Santiago maintained that the Repair, Reconstruction and Relocation Program (R3) through the island Housing Department has funds amounting to nearly $3 billion as of July 2019.
“Said program launched its online application on July 31, 2019, and was extended until January 2020,” he said. “Of the total $2.945 billion in federal funds allocated to the program, the Pierluisi administration alleges that there is $2.426 billion obligated and $519 million unobligated. That is false.”
“For the Pierluisi administration, the word obligated is money received for a purpose, but it is not equivalent to work being contracted, or for which construction has begun,” Dalmau Santiago said. “Hence the big difference between what the Pierluisi administration is trying to project and the chaos certified by the GAO.”
Regarding education, Dalmau Santiago said the Pierluisi administration had $9.112 billion to attend to the island’s educational needs.
“The Education Department has an allocation of $3.25 billion to repair 1,109 schools, and to this date, no project has been started,” he said. “That is to say, there are resources, and yet we do not have adequate and prepared schools, we do not have teachers recruited for all subjects, we do not have maintenance, nursing, guidance counselors, librarians, and support personnel, and our children and youth do not have the books, materials, or the necessary teaching equipment.”
In terms of roads, FEMA announced two years ago, in September 2020, the allocation of over $783 million to repair roads, bridges and ports in Puerto Rico. On Wednesday of last week, the Department of Transportation and Public Works announced the start of the first reconstruction work due to Maria.
“I believe it is necessary to make an evaluative judgment on this particular matter,” Dalmau Santiago said. “Resentment and rage are not enough to describe the hardships and difficulties that our people suffer even though we have the resources to improve living conditions.”
On the subject of the ports, the Senate leader noted that “the port of Mayagüez was allocated $207 million for its reconstruction and repair.”
“Two years later, only $1.4 million has been used to design the work,” he said. “Meanwhile, the port of Ponce received an allocation of $11.2 million for repairs to its cranes, and no data on the use has been provided.”