Welcome back to Disaster Discourse Monthly!
This year, we are changing our format to feature the expertise of our leadership every quarter. Today at Disaster Discourse Monthly, Stan Gimont, Hagerty’s Senior Advisor for Community Recovery, and Dennis Gonzalez, Director, discuss Puerto Rico’s challenging road to recovery following Hurricanes Irma and Maria as well as what can be done to move the island forward.
Puerto Rico: At a Crossroads Three Years After Hurricanes Irma and Maria
By: Stan Gimont & Dennis Gonzalez
It has been more than three years since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico. While the American citizens living on Puerto Rico have been resilient in dealing with the aftermath, the long-term recovery has been slowed by hurdles that sapped momentum from the effort.
On the surface, it seems Federal funding is not the problem. On October 9, 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released its Fiscal Year 2020 Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) report and it reflects almost $29 billion in total obligations to Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria. Concurrently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has approved Puerto Rico’s plans for the use of $9.7 billion of Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding and has allocated an additional $8.3 billion for mitigation purposes.
The problem is access to and administration of funds. While FEMA’s $29 billion obligation is impressive, the DRF report indicates forty-one percent ($11.9 billion) of that amount was approved in September 2020. Additionally, FEMA recently indicated only $4.2 billion has been expended for permanent repairs. Regarding the HUD funding, approximately $100 million has been spent.
Why hasn’t more of this funding been put to work?
Notwithstanding recent actions, the Trump Administration has been skeptical of Puerto Rico’s ability to manage large amounts of federal recovery funding. As a result, federal government agencies employed administrative strategies and imposed funding conditions that delayed progress. As an example, HUD delayed allocation of the $8.3 billion in mitigation funding for Puerto Rico for five months; moreover, HUD has yet to issue requirements governing the use of $1.9 billion for the island’s electrical grid. So, while the money is on the table, it has been difficult to access it.
This is not an easily resolved issue, but recent electoral outcomes will likely alter the situation. As outlined in a plan released on September 15, the incoming Biden Administration will take a very different approach to the challenges Puerto Rico continues to face. Additionally, Puerto Rico’s incoming Governor, Pedro Pierliuisi, will seek a reset of the relationship.
Assuming there is a reset, what actions can the Federal government take to advance the island’s recovery?
The first step should be to focus management of the overall Federal response. For thirty months after Maria made landfall, FEMA did what it could to facilitate coordination amongst Federal partners, but its authority only goes so far. President Trump appointed a Special Representative for Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery in February 2020 but did not delegate authority to expedite Federal coordination. Recasting the Special Representative as an on-island position with the authority to make timely policy and operational decisions, in consultation with federal agencies, would go a long way toward expediting action.
A second step would be an agency-by-agency review to identify requirements and processes that inhibit recovery and implement changes to address those problems. A few suggestions:
- HUD must re-evaluate CDBG-DR grant conditions that impose an exceptionally high standard on documentation and review for every draw upon eligible funds;
- FEMA and HUD should find further flexibilities around “global or coordinated match” that would relieve duplicative requirements that arise when FEMA DRF and HUD CDBG funds are used in the same project; and
- FEMA should slow its revolving door of personnel in San Juan. Replacement staff require time to get up to speed and sometimes reconsider prior recovery commitments, thereby contributing to delays in funding execution. Notably, FEMA recently took a step in this direction and named a permanent Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator for Puerto Rico.
Third, the Federal government should better coordinate and, thus, reduce the burden associated with Federal reviews of Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. Recognizing that each agency and their inspectors general have a need and right to conduct oversight, the process can be better managed as Puerto Rico’s valuable leadership and staff bandwidth is being consumed by these reviews. A more coordinated process, utilizing standardized data, ideally under the auspices of the Special Representative, would provide distinct benefits to both sides of the recovery effort.
A fourth step would be for the Federal agencies to find additional ways to enhance on-island labor and logistics support. The shortage of skilled construction labor remains an impediment to recovery and Federal partners should work with Puerto Rico to both develop a sizable, qualified work force on the island.
Puerto Ricans deserve a fighting chance to achieve an effective, resilient recovery from the impacts of Irma and Maria. The resources are available, but is there the desire and will at the Federal level to take steps necessary to elevate this recovery effort? The next twelve months will likely dictate the course of the recovery and, by extension, the future of Puerto Rico.
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