Wednesday, May 22, 2019

FEMA yet to assess cost of 90,000 Puerto Rico sites damaged by 2017 hurricanes

By on February 19, 2019

SAN JUAN – While the Puerto Rico government is moving hastily, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is still lagging in estimating project costs for some 90,000 sites damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria so the permanent-works phase of the island’s rebuilding can actually begin.

Under the Stafford Act’s section 428, the alternative procedures for large project funding for Public Assistance (PA), FEMA and Puerto Rico’s Central Office for Reconstruction and Recovery (COR3) must agree by Oct. 11 on the cost estimates for the about 90,000 projects, COR3 Director Omar Marrero said. On that day, “the government will know how much funds are there exactly for the permanent reconstruction work,” he said.

Were FEMA to not complete the estimates by that date, section 428 allows for an extension but Marrero said his office is pushing FEMA to speed up its process because “we want to have an effective recovery.”

Marrero added that is the first time FEMA is implementing section 428 for an entire disaster, and “the reality is that there 90,000 sites to inspect.” COR3 is in a more advanced stage in the estimates than FEMA because it hired an outside firm to help in the process.

If the two entities agree on the cost estimates for all of the projects, according to the recovery plan the projects will be performed by priority, with those involving energy, water and transportation to be carried out first.

On Oct. 30, 2017, the Puerto Rico government elected to participate in alternative procedures for all large project funding for Public Assistance (PA) Categories C-G, provided by section 428 of the Stafford Act, for permanent work following Hurricane Maria.

More than a year and a half since Irma and Maria struck the island, most towns have been unable to start the permanent reconstruction projects. COR3’s recovery website, shows that less than 10 percent, for permanent work categories C through G, has been appropriated.

In a letter dated Nov. 2, 2017, President Trump authorized federal funds for all categories of PA at 90 percent of total eligible costs, except for assistance previously approved at 100 percent. In accordance with the president’s letter, the increased federal cost share was conditioned upon the commonwealth establishing a grant oversight authority, supported by third-party experts, to perform as the grant recipient for PA and Hazard Mitigation funding to ensure “sound project management and enhanced, centralized control and oversight over the distribution” of FEMA grant funds. As a result, the government created COR3.

A second condition was that all large project funding for PA categories C-G must be obligated by FEMA “only through alternative procedures as FEMA shall establish under section 428 of the Stafford Act, including third-party independent expert validation of estimates for projects exceeding a threshold established by FEMA.”

Another condition was that Hazard Mitigation grant funding available under section 404 of the Stafford Act be prioritized toward protecting federal investments in Puerto Rico’s public infrastructure.

Transparency questioned

Marrero made his remarks Tuesday during the first of several quarterly roundtables with the press to inform about COR3’s work. The roundtable came after Espacios Abiertos, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government, charged that COR3’s website did not meet international standards for transparency.

Marrero said the government complies with the responsibility of maintaining a transparency portal as required by Congress and federal legislation to qualify for disaster aid.

‘”The COR3 portal complies with all federal requirements of the United States and its data is updated weekly,” he said, denying that the press conference was prompted by the claims of Espacios Abiertos.

The portal shows how funds have been disbursed, and the data can be transferred to Excel. “In this portal, the user should be able to see the progress that we have made in the different areas by sector, amount and origin of funds,” he explained.

The portal was developed by CSI Technologies, a company that obtained $88 million for a three-year contract to monitor the projects and the disbursement of federal funds.

Marrero revealed that the portal will soon display the different projects that are divided among the agencies. The public will be able to see the cost of the projects, their contractors and when will they be finished.

“The information available will be made so anyone can know here and outside the island about what is happening with Puerto Rico’s rebuilding,” he said.

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