Leadership, transparency needed in Puerto Rico recovery efforts
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Today, 82 percent of Puerto Rico is without electricity and a boil-water advisory is in place for 78 percent of the population.  If that weren’t bad enough, the death toll has risen exponentially following Hurricane Maria – this September saw 472 more people die than the same month in 2016. Yet, the local government classified these deaths as natural and opted to do almost a thousand cremations without autopsies. Puerto Rico remains in a humanitarian crisis and is desperately lacking leadership today. 

After the storm hit, first responders from the local and federal governments moved swiftly to save lives. Puerto Ricans, assisted by their fellow Americans from federal agencies and the Armed Forces, went out to help others showing compassion and a sense of duty, sharing food and water, providing shelter, protecting children and attending the old and sick. As a Navy veteran myself, we are grateful to the Armed Forces for their help.

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Now that the debris is being removed, temporary housing has been provided and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in-charge of electricity, we can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But even still, unfortunately, the outlook is not pretty. 

Questions of corruption now plague Gov. Ricardo Rosselló as a result of no-bid, $300 million contract with a two-man operation called Whitefish Energy. Let’s call this deeply disturbing misstep the governor’s “Whitefish Gate” moment. If that weren’t troubling enough, Gov. Rosselló has attempted to push through an executive order that would create a new entity in charge of receiving all federal funds and authorizing the expenditure of those funds. 

Unsurprisingly, he wanted the office exempt from outside review and auditing, including by the legislature. This is the reason why I, as the leader of the minority in the local House of Representatives, filed a suit against Gov. Rosselló to declare his Executive Order unconstitutional. Our systems of checks and balances is being thwarted by this action and it will keep everyone in the dark, literally.  

This needs to change and we need Congress to lead the way. 

First, Puerto Rico needs a plan to reconstruct its infrastructure and we must start now. The first aid dollars from the federal government are ready to be utilized under the Community Disaster Loans (CDL) program. We should start by rebuilding its electric grid. We could take a short-term view to bring back the lights as quickly as possible or, as we strongly recommend, rebuild the system to withstand future shocks and avoid future devastations. Under Section 404 of the Stafford Act, FEMA could fund a substantial improvement to the electricity grid.

Importantly, the CDL program can be leveraged to clean up Superfund sites, such as those affecting my district of Dorado, where my fellow Puerto Ricans are forced to source water from a contaminated site with unknown long-term health impacts. Additionally, these dollars can be leveraged to shut down two dozen toxic landfills that violate every federal law on the books that have littered our Island for too long. 

Second, the forthcoming supplemental aid package from Congress, set to be released in the coming weeks, has the potential to be a game changer.  Community Block Development Grants (CBDG) are like rocket-fuel, and can be leveraged by the Puerto Rican government to boost areas in desperate need to revival, including tourist destinations like Old San Juan, Condado and Dorado. 

Additionally, Puerto Rico really needs Medicaid dollars – $1.6 billion to be exact.  There is concern by House leadership that these dollars will be used to pay bondholders, but this view just does not hold any legal reality.  There is no excuse for Congress to delay getting out the funding.

Third, we need to solve our debt crisis. The governor and Oversight Board have taken the easy road to date and kicked the can to the courts. This is not leadership, and has directly undercut recovery efforts, and will continue to do so until these parties get serious at the negotiating table. A solution is not difficult. From my conversations with bondholders, they have been ready to negotiate for some time. 

The people of Puerto Rico and the American people are partners in the reconstruction and this relationship must be based on mutual trust and transparency. At the end of the day, it is the American people, through its representatives in Congress, that are providing the economic assistance to the people in Puerto Rico, and it is to the American people that we are accountable and owe transparency in the use of the public funds that are being employed in our recovery.

Rafael “Tatito” Hernandez is the Puerto Rican House of Representatives Minority Leader for the Popular Democratic Party.