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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘They don’t have the people with the proper experience’

Iván Casals (Photo courtesy of Wilson Nazario)

Disaster mitigation expert says COR3’s distribution of recovery funds to island churches & nonprofits is badly lagging

By Richard Gutiérrez

Churches and other nonprofit organizations are currently receiving funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) corresponding to disaster claims; however, a prominent adviser to religious and nonprofit entities in Puerto Rico says the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) has placed a serious stranglehold on religious groups and nonprofit organizations when it comes to the timely delivery of those funds.

“Anything that is positive and can bring in some sort of help is a good thing. I have to be grateful to FEMA in that they have taken care of my cases,” Iván Casals told the STAR. “Sure, they are distributing money to these religious groups, but it’s not like the money is already secured, and the way they are trying to do this is so ill-advised and blurry, that I find it nearly impossible not to have some sort of fear.”

Casals noted that a few weeks ago, COR3 held a conference in the Puerto Rico Convention Center where they assembled hundreds of nonprofit groups, and where they had seven tables occupied by the General Services Administration, the Office of the Inspector General, among a sizable number of lawyers.

“The pastors I work with came out of this conference terrified,” Casals said. “I genuinely think they [officials] are focusing way too much on the fact that this money could be used erroneously instead of recognizing that this is done innocently. They have been mistaken in the way they explain the consequences of using the money erroneously, scaring the churches. They are trying to turn everything into a crime when that’s not the case -- this is a public service program.”

Apart from what smacks of fear mongering, Casals believes that the way COR3 is handling the distribution of the money is extremely poor.

“For example, if someone makes a $1 million contract with a construction contractor and asks for a payment in advance, COR3 gives them $200,000,” the specialist in disaster recovery said. “Once the contractor gets there and works on the reconstruction, people go back to the COR3 stating that they just paid the contractor $200,000 and ask for the next batch of money; they’ll be waiting about six months for that next batch.”

The issue gets even worse, he said. It isn’t just that they take six to eight months auditing the money, but that contractors begin to charge late fees after a certain amount of time, and by the time COR3 pays up, the churches themselves will basically have to end up paying the money they owe.

Casals added that something else the COR3 isn’t considering is that the damage estimates were made close to six years ago, and since that time inflation has had a significant impact on the cost of materials.

“Everything has gotten a lot more expensive, so without counting any late fees the contractors may charge the churches, those estimates won’t be enough to cover the base cost of these projects in 2023,” he said. “They are working with old information that isn’t updated to today’s cost of materials; lumber has doubled in price, nails have doubled in price, you name it.”

Casals also believes that COR3 is being hypocritical with what he says are its excessive demands for the churches to follow regulations, yet they themselves are not following the regulations, he said.

“The Stafford Act, and United States federal law demands that governments pay the funds as early as 30 days after the claim has been made,” he said. “Thirty days, not 30 months. They frankly don’t care.”

The spokesman for island faith-based communities also noted the lack of experience that he says COR3 has with disaster recovery work.

“I can certainly say that whenever any country goes through a natural disaster, dealing with it is not an easy task -- millions of people’s lives are involved and a lot of situations need to be addressed,” Casals said. “There’s a different scenario in every corner, but frankly, COR3 has no experience dealing with these things. The system needs to change; the regulations need to be followed. It’s a very difficult agency to control -- too many clients and too many things -- they don’t have the people with the proper experience.”

Casals went on to say that no contractors want to work with FEMA because COR3 is not paying on time, and that’s on top of the lack of understanding of FEMA’s processes.

“FEMA’s regulations state that if an engineer sees there is storm damage in a building, simply with that engineer certifying that there is damage in the building caused by the storm, the money has to be distributed immediately,” he said. “But that’s not what they are doing. Here they have to go through six months of deciding whether the building is going to be fixed or not.”

Casals also believes that, in a sense, it was the churches that truly helped people in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017.

“I’m not a very religious person myself, but I saw the churches being the ones moving and helping people as much as possible,” he said. “I don’t think FEMA or any other agency moved as efficiently as the churches. As a consultant I had a client once who fixed more than 150 rooftops for private houses with their own money. The churches have done so much work for the people. Some denominations even brought over construction companies to help rebuild things in the community.”

“It is wrong that after so much work that the churches have been putting into Puerto Rico, COR3 comes and doesn’t pay them the money they need to fix their own establishments,” Casals said. “

A lot of churches have lost the people they had [in their congregations] because their buildings are not sustainable anymore.”

The disaster consultant stated that what comes next is a meeting with FEMA to fix the situation, which will be announced in an upcoming press conference. However, if FEMA doesn’t agree to such a meeting, he said, a class action lawsuit will be filed against the agency in federal court.

“If FEMA does not meet with us we will have a class action lawsuit filed against them for the $43 billion that they owe Puerto Rico,” Casals said. “We all knew COR3 was a mistake, but this is FEMA’s issue and they have to solve it, because otherwise the reconstruction of the island will take more than 20 years.”

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