More than three years have passed since Hurricanes Irma and María struck us mercilessly, and post-disaster reconstruction still seems like a distant and unfulfilled promise. To be fair, it is a complex and highly bureaucratic process, involving numerous government entities and actors, and there are plenty of regulations and guidelines that must be followed. It is also necessary to make the caveat that, in our case, Congress imposed certain conditions, on top of those that normally exist, to, apparently, ensure that tropical citizens act with prudence and discipline. On the other hand, the disasters and a fateful 2020 have caught us at a very delicate moment for our public administration apparatus. After years of “bitter medicines” and austerity policies that seek to “do more with less,” the agencies and departments on whose shoulders much of the responsibility for reconstruction rests operate with very little personnel and resources. Now, in a race against time, they are trying to assemble teams that can handle and ensure that the billions of dollars that are available, to heal some of our still tender wounds, are put to the best use.
According to recent reports from the Department of Housing and the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3), dozens of programs related to reconstruction have already been launched. Of the CDBG-DR funds administered by PRDOH, nearly $7 billion have already been identified for programs that are underway and include assistance for planning, housing, infrastructure and economic development. On the other hand, COR3 reports on its transparency portal that over $19 billion in FEMA funds have been committed for over 6,000 public assistance projects, most of which are small ones. Although these numbers give the impression that something is happening, the reality is that there has been much more paper-pushing than nail driving, since not a quarter of FEMA funds have been disbursed, and only $473 million has gone towards permanent works. In the case of the Housing Department, the outlook is even more worrisome given that there are still thousands of homes covered with blue tarps and, as of October 2020, only 146 homes had been either repaired or rebuilt under the Home Repair, Reconstruction and Relocation Program (R3).
With 2021 around the corner, many issues remain unaddressed, beyond accelerating the pace of the reconstruction. First, we need to improve coordination efforts. Although there are two local entities designing programs and directing the use and management of the majority of local and federal funds for reconstruction, it is not clear to us whether their efforts and programs are harmonized. Second, local hiring. There is talk of billions of dollars available to “rebuild Puerto Rico,” but we are concerned that the largest contracts, to date, have been awarded to large U.S. corporations rather than local contractors. Third, supervision. Although the federal government has imposed countless rules and requirements for the use of funds, we need an effective local oversight mechanism that facilitates better transparency practices, a new governance structure, greater citizen participation, and centralized information and communication mechanisms. And finally, planning. Millions of dollars have been budgeted for the elaboration of numerous reconstruction plans, but very few have even begun to be drafted. Isn’t planning supposed to serve as the roadmap for project execution? It remains to be seen how these planning processes will be carried out and how local needs will be reconciled with projects that have already been approved and those that are in the pipeline. In short, there is still a long way to go and a lot to take care of to ensure that our reconstruction leads to what Puerto Rico truly needs: a just recovery.
The Spanish version of this column was originally published in Sin Comillas on December 10, 2020.