On September 18, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria and as Puerto Rico prepared to commemorate the lives lost and reflect on the devastation caused by one of the strongest storms ever seen in these latitudes, Mother Nature played one of her unexpected tricks by sending Hurricane Fiona our way. Fiona hit the island as a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of approximately 85 miles per hour. The storm is estimated to have dumped 1 trillion gallons of water on Puerto Rico over 48 to 60 hours. Damage from flooding and the storm surge was severe, life-threatening in some cases, and widespread.
Hurricane Fiona once again laid bare the substantial vulnerability of Puerto Rican society. The impact of a weather event is not only a function of its force or potency, it is also a function of the pre-existing level of vulnerability of a given society. Puerto Rico was extremely vulnerable before Fiona because only 30% of all permanent reconstruction work related to Hurricane Maria had begun; thousands of people still lived in flood-prone areas; and essentially nothing had been done to strengthen the power grid and other critical infrastructure or increase their resilience. Given all that, the key question to ask is: why, five years after Hurricane Maria, is the reconstruction process so far behind?
The short answer is that five key challenges to Puerto Rico’s reconstruction process have not been addressed, namely: (1) the lack of effective coordination among the agencies in charge of reconstruction, (2) poorly designed public participation platforms, (3) superficial transparency efforts, (4) the failure to implement adequate oversight mechanisms, and (5) the extremely slow disbursement of reconstruction funds.
Even before Fiona struck, the lack of coordination between the federal government, Puerto Rico government agencies, and the island’s municipalities was evident. For example, at a September 15 public hearing in Congress, representatives from FEMA, the GAO, and Puerto Rico central office for reconstruction, known as “COR3”, could not agree on the number of long-term projects underway and the amount of money that had been spent to strengthen the power grid. The FEMA representative emphasized that it had committed some $9.5 billion for the long-term reconstruction of the network; while the representative of the GAO pointed out that of that amount only about $40 million had been spent; shortly thereafter, however, the director of COR3 described as “progress” that some $183 million had been spent on the reconstruction of the grid. It is obvious, then, that the parties are either not speaking the same language, or using the same definitions, or both. There is a clear lack of communication, which is ultimately a coordination failure.
The damage caused by Hurricane Fiona will add another layer of complexity to what was already a difficult and complicated endeavor. We are now faced with the challenge of managing three different types of projects: projects to repair the damage caused by Maria and that did not suffer additional damage from Fiona; projects to repair the damage caused by Fiona; and projects that were already underway to repair damage caused by Maria and that were affected by Fiona. Therefore, another reconstruction and recovery process begins parallel to the one that was already taking place, but which must be synchronized with the one already going on, to avoid delays, the duplication of efforts, and the misuse of public funds.
Paradoxically, this complicated situation also provides us with an opportunity to rethink key plans and programs; identify existing deficiencies; and take effective actions to remediate them. In several weeks we will move on from the immediate response to Hurricane Fiona to planning for the reconstruction of the damage caused by that natural phenomenon. When the cameras are turned off, the international media stops covering Puerto Rico, and life on the island begins to resume its daily rhythms, it is imperative that we not forget those who lost their homes, the communities that were left inaccessible, and the small business owners who lost everything. At this juncture, the need to carefully define precise planning, coordination and execution frameworks, and to improve the flow of information, becomes clear. In other words, an entity is needed to comprehensively coordinate and manage Puerto Rico’s recovery.
President Biden recently visited Puerto Rico and expressed his support and solidarity with all those who have suffered so much since Hurricane Maria. That support is greatly appreciated by all in the island. However, we believe the current confluence of events calls for President Biden to take bold action and order the creation of an entity similar to the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which was created by President Obama under Executive Order 13632 of 7 December 2012.
A Puerto Rico Recovery Task Force would: have an explicit mandate to coordinate recovery efforts among and between the federal agencies and among and between the federal government and the government of Puerto Rico; provide for the inclusion of Puerto Rican elected officials at all levels and their representatives, including the COR3, through an advisory group; promote subsidiarity and inclusiveness by engaging local stakeholders, municipalities, community organizations, NGOs active in Puerto Rico, and business leaders; and strengthen the local economy by ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico and local business enterprises are hired on a priority basis.
That is the help Puerto Rico needs.
This column was originally published on The Hill on October 5, 2022.