The Federal Emergency Management Agency drew fire in the U.S. house of Representatives over the slow pace of aid for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes.
Members of the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery on Thursday lambasted FEMA for failing to send a representative to answer questions on the recovery efforts following two requests.
“If that empty chair isn’t a perfect metaphor for this administration’s response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, I don’t know what is,” Subcommittee Chair Donald Payne, D-N.J., said in his opening remarks.
The Puerto Rico Oversight Board and island economists are counting on federal aid to provide some stimulus to the island’s economy in the next few years. The board includes this aid as a factor in calculating how much debt the public entities can pay.
“I find the pace that FEMA is administering this program to be troubling,” Payne said “Nearly two years have passed, and permanent work in Puerto Rico has yet to begin.”
Omar Marrero — executive director of the Puerto Rico Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resilience — told the subcommittee that FEMA had approved only 117 projects of the 1,475 project worksheets submitted in the 22 months following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In the same time frame it had approved 13,000 projects for Louisiana and Mississippi. “The discrepancy is startling.”
“Though the storms are nearly two years ago, recoveries for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands remain at a beginning stage,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.
Chris Currie, director of Homeland Security and Justice at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said FEMA had “obligated” or promised $7.4 billion in Public Assistance grant funding to the two territories for their hurricane recoveries. Of this $6.2 billion was for emergency work like debris removal and power restoration. An additional $965 million was for permanent work. Of this $587 million was obligated to the Virgin Islands and $377 million to Puerto Rico.
Of the money actually spent for Puerto Rico rebuilding, only 1% was for permanent work projects, Currie said.
Currie, Marrero, and a representative of the Virgin Islands highlighted changed funding approval requirements and other bureaucratic impediments as having slowed the process of receiving the funds.
“Some of these delays can be attributed to magnitude of destruction on the island and the logistical challenges associated with that, other delays appear to be as a result of an emphasis on the amount of money expended instead of the outcomes being achieved,” Marrero said.
To address damage to over 6,000 schools the island government has decided to consolidate several schools and focus on rebuilding 64 of them. “Since initial estimates were completed nearly eight months ago, FEMA has changed the amount of money available for this project from over $1 billion dollars to less than $400 million,” Marrero said. “Each time the estimate changes, reviews and scopes of work must be redone delaying even further the commencement of work.”
With Puerto Rico’s recovery from the hurricanes, FEMA is adopting a new procedure whereby fixed cost estimates must be agreed to before commencing work. Puerto Rico has asked for an extension on FEMA’s Oct. 11 deadline for the estimates. The agency has said that these would be approved on a case-by-case basis. “FEMA has yet to determine which industry standards we are building towards, which in and of itself prevents anyone from determining how much rebuilding will cost,” Marrero said.
“I think the decision to use the alternative procedures on such a large scale has had a massive impact on the speed of recovery and has slowed that,” Currie told the lawmakers.
Several other lawmakers echoed Payne’s concern about the lack of a FEMA representative at the hearing.
When FEMA was contacted after the hearing, a FEMA spokesperson said that the acting FEMA administrators had appeared before the subcommittee’s parent committee, Committee on Homeland Security, three weeks ago and invited members to ask him questions about recovery operations in the two territories. About two weeks ago FEMA provided a briefing to committee members about the operations. FEMA also hosted a congressional delegation trip to Puerto Rico in March.
He said the agency will continue to work with the subcommittee.