Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter Brown, who was appointed as the White House’s special representative for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery this year, said that the efforts were months in the making and that they were unrelated to the political timeline of the election.
“The development of this estimate has been a bulky process, and our goal was always to get out this announcement as quickly as possible. We’ve been literally working on it for months,” Brown said.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development had previously approved $20 billion for the island’s reconstruction, a historic amount. But the agency knowingly stalled release of the aid last year to impose additional restrictions and requirements on how Puerto Rico could gain access to the funds, citing corruption and financial mismanagement concerns.
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The highest-profile public corruption case involving disaster recovery funds involved federal employees — two FEMA officials who were charged with fraud and bribery surrounding $1.8 billion in contracts to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid.
“There’s always been concern about the ability of the government of Puerto Rico to effectively manage a level of money that so vastly exceeds their normal annual operating budgets,” Brown said. But he said he remains confident that money will flow in a timely manner and with proper oversight, because relationships between the local and federal governments have “significantly improved over the past year,” he said.
Soto-Class said: “But you need to have oversight that works. It can’t be punishment disguised as oversight.”
Puerto Rico’s first major program to rebuild homes hasn’t completed a single one, even though tens of thousands of homes still have damaged roofs, many of them still covered with blue tarps. The program, known as R3, which is funded by HUD, is the biggest effort by the local government to carry out major repairs.
‘Recovered however they could’
Perez was one of the many Puerto Ricans who took breaks from their day jobs to “basically became a carpenter for a year” and to join churches and other groups working to rebuild people’s roofs.
“Those who lost their homes three years ago recovered however they could. Many then experienced the earthquakes, and many others lost their jobs because of the pandemic” Perez said. “You have so many families struggling, and it’s difficult to remain optimistic, even when officials announce big amounts of money, because we know that money will be stuck in a bank account somewhere for a long time while people suffer.”
Nearly 27,000 homeowners have applied for R3 assistance since some of the federal funding to run the program was released a year and a half ago. Puerto Rican officials have said they’re almost done repairing the first 45 homes set to benefit from the program, but no rebuilding job has been completed yet.
Last month, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor acknowledged that the only hospital on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques hasn’t been rebuilt since it was destroyed in 2017. The agency made $39.5 million available to Vieques to rebuild the hospital in January.
At the same time that the federal government has been slow to make recovery funds available, the Puerto Rican government has also been slow to spend the already-disbursed funds.
“That’s on us,” Soto-Class said, “although not completely on us, because there are also a lot of restrictions for the funds, but a lot of it is on us.” Some of the failures of the Puerto Rican government can be attributed to years of federally imposed austerity measures that have led to the “institutional collapse” of government agencies key to the recovery, he said.
“If we continue to do it how we’ve been doing it, it’s going to be impossible,” Soto-Class said. “It’s not going to happen, and that’s what we’ve seen in the last three years, very little movement.”
The 3.2 million Puerto Ricans on the island can’t vote in the presidential election, but they will be electing their governor and other local leaders on Nov. 3. The same day, Puerto Ricans who have relocated to the mainland U.S. will be voting in the presidential election.
“There’s a new discourse on the island ahead of the elections,” Perez said. “People are ready to elect leaders who are ready to treat Puerto Rico in a humane way.”
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CORRECTION (Sept. 20, 2020, 9:55 p.m. ET): A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misstated when Elizabeth Parilla was pictured feeding her pets. The photo was taken in September 2017, not this month.
Nicole Acevedo is a reporter for NBC News Digital. She reports, writes and produces stories for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com.
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