FEMA's responsibility to Puerto Rico
© Getty Images

It has been more than 20 months since the powerful hurricane María (Sept. 20, 2017) made landfall on the United States Territory of Puerto Rico. It destroyed or damaged more than 650,000 homes, more than 1,500 miles of roads and bridges, nearly all of our electrical grid and most of our telecommunications and water supply infrastructure, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has yet to provide full funding for nearly all of the reconstruction effort around the island.

FEMA has a responsibility to the U.S. citizens living Puerto Rico, one that must be fulfilled immediately.

The island is divided into 78 municipalities, which help run the governing system. All of those towns, from the capital, San Juan, to the southern municipality of Ponce, to Mayaguez in the west and Fajardo in the east, suffered heavy damages during María. At the time of the storm, most of the municipalities were facing grave financial difficulties due to the massive debt accumulated by the central government.

In order to help restore basic services - electricity, running tap water and transportation - to their communities as soon as possible, the mayors used all of their available cash reserves to contract outside resources for the job, with the confidence that FEMA would promptly reimburse those funds. Unfortunately, that has not occurred in most of the cases, a situation that has left many towns across the island in dire straits. This is simply unacceptable to us.

Since late 2017 I have been traveling to Washington to meet with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, as well as with executive officials with the hope of speeding up the reimbursement process to our mayors, who are suffering the financial strain FEMA has placed on them for no other reason that because Puerto Rico is not a state of the union.

For example, as of February, FEMA has granted the municipality of Bayamon, one of Island’s largest cities with an estimated population of around 207,960 U.S. citizens, an $18 million line of disbursement. Those funds have been properly used in many areas, including search and recovery, cleanup efforts and reconstruction of public facilities, among others. Unfortunately, only about $7 million of the funds have been disbursed. This same exercise can be made with the remaining 77 municipalities.

I want to emphasize that Puerto Rico has not received the same treatment, in terms of federal aid related to natural disaster relief, as states such as Florida and Texas. In the case of Texas, FEMA provided over $141.8 million in direct aid within the first nine days of hurricane Harvey. In the same period, our island only received $6.2 million. This discrimination has to end and it has to end now.

I urge the new administrator of FEMA, Peter T. Gaynor, to look into this situation urgently and to order a massive overhaul of the disbursement system to Puerto Rico. The U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico can’t tolerate this level of discrimination any further, action on your part is required.

José Aponte Hernández is former Speaker and current member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.