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FEMA Begins Scaling Back Financial Assistance In Puerto Rico

Aug 17, 2018
Originally published on August 17, 2018 2:55 pm

Eleven months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has said that the island's emergency is over. And because of that, the agency has begun scaling back its financial assistance to the island.

On Wednesday, FEMA denied a request from the island's governor for the federal agency to continue covering 100 percent of the cost of emergency work — including power restoration, debris cleanup and other recovery efforts.

Instead, FEMA has said that going forward, it will cover 90 percent of those costs, while Puerto Rico's government will be responsible for the remaining 10 percent. FEMA estimates that share could cost the island's government about $100 million.

"I think this is a good sign," said Mike Byrne, the top FEMA official on the island. "It's a sign that ... we're entering a recovery phase. The emergency requirements are no longer in place. We're no longer delivering food and water, power is back with the exception of a very few people. All of the essential infrastructure functions are up and running."

But officials in Puerto Rico's government were not pleased by FEMA's decision. Omar Marrero, who runs the island's office of recovery and reconstruction, said the government expects to file an appeal.

"Our government will continue demanding the equal treatment to which all Puerto Ricans are entitled as American citizens," Marrero said in a statement to NPR.

After "major disaster" declarations, FEMA typically covers 75 percent of the cost of emergency response services, while local governments are responsible for the remaining 25 percent. After Hurricane Maria, President Trump authorized FEMA to cover 100 percent of those costs in Puerto Rico. To date, the agency says it has spent roughly $3 billion on things like debris removal, hazardous waste cleanup and road repairs, plus more than $2 billion on power restoration efforts.

The agency said it has been one of the longest period of times for which it had covered 100 percent of the cost of emergency work, surpassed only by work in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. In those cases, Congress eventually passed a law that allowed FEMA to cover 100 percent of emergency work for the life of the disaster.

Congress has not done so in the case of Puerto Rico, and as the end of the president's authorization for full cost share approached, the island's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, requested an extension. In a brief sent to Congress explaining its decision to deny that request, FEMA called its response in Puerto Rico one "of historic proportions."

"Now that the emergency phase has concluded," the brief read, "FEMA has determined that Puerto Rico no longer needs 100 percent federal cost share."

Instead, the agency said it is shifting its focus to longer-term reconstruction projects. It also said other federal grants headed for Puerto Rico will allow the island to cover its share of the costs.

It was just one sign that FEMA has begun wrapping up its emergency operations on the island. In another, the agency this week announced the closure of several of the disaster recovery offices it opened across the island after the storm to give residents a place to apply for federal aid.

FEMA has come under intense scrutiny for what many critics have characterized as a slow and ineffective response to the hurricane. In a report released last month, the agency acknowledged many of the ways it was unprepared for a storm as destructive as Hurricane Maria. When the hurricane hit, for example, the agency's emergency supply warehouse on the island was empty, and it did not have enough pre-positioned contracts in place to ensure its ability to quickly secure the services and supplies it needed.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Eleven months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island is no longer in a state of emergency. That's according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And because of that, FEMA has started cutting back its financial assistance. NPR's Adrian Florido has spent the past couple of months reporting from Puerto Rico. He's in San Juan now. Good morning, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So FEMA says the emergency in Puerto Rico is over. What does that mean for Puerto Rico, exactly?

FLORIDO: Well, what FEMA says it means is that the agency thinks that the island's sort of urgent, immediate needs have been met. It was just this week, for example, that the government here said that it had finished restoring power to the island. One example. A lot of the roads and bridges that were damaged or washed out have been repaired or at least patched up. Downed trees and branches and other debris has mostly been cleared away, hazardous spills cleaned up. Hospitals are generally up and running. And this isn't to say that things are perfect here - far from it, in fact. But when FEMA comes to a place after a disaster, there's generally an emergency response phase to the response, and then there is a recovery phase. Now, what FEMA says is that Puerto Rico is now in that recovery phase. Another sign of this is that after the storm, FEMA opened all these offices across the island to help people apply for help. And this week, it started announcing the closure of a lot of those offices.

KING: That's interesting. OK. So moving into a recovery phase. What does that mean for the way that FEMA spends money or is spending money in Puerto Rico?

FLORIDO: So since the hurricane, FEMA has been paying a hundred percent of the cost of much of the emergency work that's been done here, things like, again, power restoration, debris pickup, emergency road repairs, water testing. And earlier this summer, Puerto Rico's government asked FEMA to keep picking up the full tab. But earlier this week, FEMA said no. The agency denied the governor's request and said that now Puerto Rico will have to start pitching in. Listen to what Mike Byrne, the top FEMA official in Puerto Rico, said on a call.

MIKE BYRNE: So it's not that we're walking away. It's just that the early part, where emergency needs were required and we were able to provide a hundred percent cost share for that, we've done that and we believe that we're at the end of that period. And we've just let the governor know about that.

FLORIDO: So like he said, he said that FEMA is not walking away completely. And he said that FEMA will continue to pay 90 percent of the cost of this recovery work, and that Puerto Rico will now be responsible for 10 percent. And FEMA estimates that could come out to about a hundred-million dollars that Puerto Rico will have to shell out between now and whenever this, you know, disaster declaration is declared officially over.

KING: That's a lot of money for an island that got hit hard. What does Puerto Rico's government say about that?

FLORIDO: Well, the officials here were not thrilled about that decision. The official in charge of Puerto Rico's Office of Recovery sent me a statement saying that the government is going to appeal FEMA's decision. And he said something that officials here often allude to when they're talking about how the federal government treats and has responded to Puerto Rico after the storm. He said that he would continue to fight for the, quote, "equal treatment to which all of the island's U.S. citizens are entitled."

KING: OK. Very pointed statement. You know exactly what he meant by that. What did he mean?

FLORIDO: Well, he didn't elaborate on it, but it could be a reference to the fact that after Hurricane Katrina, for example, FEMA paid a hundred percent of the emergency recovery costs in Louisiana and Mississippi until that disaster was over. First FEMA did it through extensions, and eventually Congress passed a law so that FEMA could continue to pay a hundred percent. That's something that obviously hasn't happened in Puerto Rico, at least not yet.

KING: I mean, FEMA is an emergency response agency. So what role does it typically play in in, like, longer-term recovery?

FLORIDO: So it's shifting a lot of its attention now to some longer-term recovery projects, especially on things like the energy grid, improving the energy grid. Puerto Rico also has a lot of money coming from sources that are not FEMA. It has about $20 billion on the way from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, grants for the emergency response that HUD has approved. That's money that Puerto Rico plans to use for all kinds of longer-term improvements and repairs, including rebuilding damaged homes. And it's also earmarked some of that money for possible use to cover its share of these emergency expenses that FEMA is going to stop paying, and that's actually another reason that Mike Byrne, the head of FEMA here, said that the agency had made this decision to stop paying a hundred percent.

KING: NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thanks, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.