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  • Writer's pictureJulio Ricardo Varela

What FEMA and Rep. Velázquez Told Me About Puerto Rico Disaster Money Federal Audit

El Maní in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, immediately after Hurricane María (September 20, 2017/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Public Domain)
El Maní in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, immediately after Hurricane María (September 20, 2017/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Public Domain)

For my latest MSNBC opinion piece that raised some questions as to why only $1.8 billion of $23 billion was spent on federal disaster relief for Puerto Rico, I did reach out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY). Since I couldn't run such lengthy statements and detailed answers in a piece normally just 800 words, I let FEMA and Rep. Nydia Velázquez's office know that I would share the complete responses I received from them and the questions I shared.


  1. Why has there been such a delay? Can you provide a detailed explanation?

  2. What does FEMA account for as the biggest reason for delay? Please elaborate.

  3. Is the government of Puerto Rico not cooperating with FEMA? Why? Why not?

  4. What would success mean to Puerto Rico and FEMA regarding its recovery? When do you think this will happen by?

This was the statement from a FEMA spokesperson to those questions:

At FEMA, our commitment to the recovery of Puerto Rico continues strong. It is demonstrated with every completed project and projects that are underway to rebuild the island, working daily by allocating funds for all remaining Hurricane María and Earthquake projects.


The funding approved for all Hurricane María projects represents a historic amount of federal funds to rebuild Puerto Rico’s communities and critical infrastructure. This also has a positive impact on the local economy. Puerto Rico has obligated over $31 billion for over 10,900 projects for Hurricane Maria. Of these projects, 8,909 are permanent projects with over $24 billion available for their construction.


Likewise, for Puerto Rico’s earthquake’s [sic] recovery, FEMA has obligated nearly $914 million in funding for 789 projects. Of these projects, 605 are permanent projects with $418 million, for their construction.


FEMA has worked and continues to work in close cooperation and coordination with the Government of Puerto Rico in developing innovative ideas to advance the recovery according to applicable laws and regulations. These strategies have helped the Government of Puerto Rico have access to permanent recovery funds. FEMA’s Accelerated Award Strategy (FAASt) is part of those strategies and FEMA will continue to proactively develop new strategies to support the island. In addition to advancing Puerto Rico's recovery, the Working Capital Advance program allows applicants to have the necessary liquidity to begin projects based on the needs of the initial phases of construction. FEMA will continue to proactively develop new initiatives to help the island build back stronger and faster.


As the GAO report acknowledges, FEMA’s oversight efforts have shown improvements in Puerto Rico’s grants management, the report also reflects improvement in the payments of Public Assistance funds.


FEMA has included an inflation adjustment factor in all fixed cost offers, we continue to work closely with Puerto Rico’s Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3) to compare recent actual costs of project implementation to the awarded fixed cost estimates.


FEMA will continue to work with COR3 and the government of Puerto Rico to meet the challenges that may arise for the recovery of the island.


Thank you,

FEMA News Desk


Why has the $ not been spent? Is this being an issue where the federal gov’t and FEMA are primarily to blame or has there been a local political issue on the island that has been holding this $ back?


This is a very complex question. There were certainly many things that local and federal governments could have done better.  


For many years, FEMA did not understand the reality on the ground in Puerto Rico. There were delays in getting assistance to individuals and families due to requirements for proof of home ownership. For infrastructure, FEMA rules require entities to pay for projects upfront and then receive federal funding upon completion. Many entities on the island simply didn’t have that capital. In 2020, three years after María, FEMA began to be more flexible, allowing certain entities to receive funds to pay for initial construction costs. Adjusting laws and policies to the reality of the island is a matter of equity, and there is still much to be done.


At the same time, entities in Puerto Rico had to spend huge amounts of time and resources to specialize in federal disaster management. This could have been mitigated with better planning and training of public and private personnel, but the reality is that the island had to create a new specialized workforce after Maria.


Puerto Rico has also suffered consecutive disasters, impacting FEMA’s ability to assess damage and obligate funds. In that regard, it is important for Congress and the agency to consider alternative approaches and procedures for jurisdictions with multiple disaster declarations.


Shortages of construction employees and engineers, due to high demand, have also slowed the disbursement of funds. The local government should use all the resources at its disposal, including the University of Puerto Rico, to increase the training and retention of personnel in these areas.


2. How does this problem get solved? There are billions of dollars out there for critical recovery that have yet to be spent. Why is this stuck and who is suffering the most because of this?


Streamlining the use of recovery funds is the joint responsibility of local and federal governments. FEMA must continue to promote equity in the distribution of these funds, recognizing and adjusting to the realities of Puerto Rico. One of GAO’s recommendations is that FEMA develops a plan to identify the challenges the island could face in using the funds and outline the actions the agency will take to help address them.


I’ve also introduced a bill to create a program within FEMA exclusively dedicated to identifying, monitoring, and addressing capability gaps to carry out recovery activities in the U.S. territories. This effort was supported by the Resident Commissioner and 14 Democratic colleagues.


At the local level, it is vital that Puerto Rico’s municipalities are better prepared, in terms of training and finances, to advance the recovery process. Government centralization has had the disadvantage of leaving municipalities behind. This is unacceptable. Municipal governments are the ones that are closest to communities and can best meet their needs.


Both governments must also work to achieve greater training and retention of local personnel in the management of federal funds, construction, engineering, and other critical areas.


We also need increased transparency from local governments about these projects to properly assess which communities are disproportionately left behind in the use of federal funds. The number and category of projects are important, but not enough. COR3’s Transparency Portal is limited in this regard. Puerto Ricans deserve enhanced visibility over the impact of every dollar invested and certainty that these projects are benefiting the most vulnerable Puerto Ricans.  

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