Critics of FEMA’s hurricane response in Puerto Rico have argued the agency has ignored the poor. That’s simply not the case.
Eighteen months ago, Hurricane Maria redefined the way we look at disasters. Our recovery efforts have been vast and inclusive. FEMA continues to work with Puerto Rico on the plan for the immediate future for all.
FEMA has spent over $14 billion already, and along with the island’s government is on the brink of launching a massive recovery plan. Roads, power grids, clean water systems, water treatment plants, among other public projects, will be rebuilt with features designed to resist a future disaster.
This recovery phase follows the initial post-disaster response, when disaster officials concentrated on getting Puerto Rico back on its feet again. There were many challenges immediately after Maria struck — no power, roads blocked with debris, water and food shortages.
But even as supplies arrived and roads cleared off, FEMA’s Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) teams were traveling to every corner of Puerto Rico, searching for survivors on mountaintops and in remote villages. The DSA teams try to reach everyone who’s eligible for FEMA assistance. That is their job.
FEMA is required by law to provide disaster recovery assistance without regard to race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency or economic status. To state that only low-income residents are affected by relocation recommendations, is an erroneous interpretation of the guidance FEMA provides. Eligibility criteria in flood-prone areas is based on the flood maps and areas labeled as high risk as well as the amount of applications received.
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, thousands of survivors needed a place to stay. This was often a challenge. Not only did FEMA provide several housing options to survivors, the agency also provided support to the government of Puerto Rico and state agencies with funding to address emergency housing needs and programs.
For instance, 108,488 repairs have been made under the program “Tu Hogar Renace.” This program offers temporary repairs to homes, which allow survivors to quickly return to a safe, habitable and functional condition.
Another housing option we offered was FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) that assisted more than 7,000 Puerto Rican households move into hotels across the island and on the mainland. Over 6,000 survivors, or 86 percent of those in the program, successfully transitioned to more permanent housing. The TSA program was extended three times to help Puerto Rican families in need. This was the longest implementation of the program since Hurricane Sandy.
Survivors who still have housing needs can use our direct lease and rental assistance program. This temporary housing program has been extended through Sept. 20, 2019, providing these residents with more time.
By Feb. 25, the Individuals and Households Program provided $2.4 billion in grants for housing and other necessities. Of that amount, $407 million went to survivors for Other Needs Assistance, which provides additional funds to those with few or no resources. Survivors can use the money to replace hurricane-destroyed appliances or other essential personal property.
FEMA continues to work on overcoming obstacles that might impede assistance for someone. Our staff helps people figure out how they can appeal successfully if they do not qualify the first time.
FEMA has awarded nearly $70 million for disaster case management in Puerto Rico, providing survivors with a single point of contact to facilitate access to resources. Survivors can get personalized help from any of the nine case management providers at 24 community resource centers across the island.
Partnerships with non-profits also help survivors with disaster-related needs. More than 100 local and national voluntary organizations have helped Hurricane María survivors by cleaning and repairing damaged homes so they are safe and sanitary, and provide additional services to storm survivors to assist with their recovery.
In Puerto Rico, for instance, questions emerged about survivors whose homes lacked traditional homeownership documents to fulfill FEMA’s standard eligibility process to receive assistance.
To address the complex nature of home ownership in Puerto Rico and support disaster survivors through the verification process, FEMA coordinated with various legal aid groups to develop additional documentation options for survivors.
This February, the agency obligated nearly $17 million to the Puerto Rico Public Housing Administration to relocate two public housing projects in Ciales, a municipality in the central mountainous region, out of the flood zone. This project will benefit over 100 households and sets the tone for more resilient building in Puerto Rico.
FEMA isn’t the only agency committed to Puerto Rico’s recovery. Over 22 agencies received funding to help Puerto Rico build back stronger. FEMA is working with our federal and Commonwealth partners to leverage these resources, sequence timelines, prevent duplication and align project scopes. These actions save time, money and efforts and lead to more holistic outcomes for communities.
For example, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department has promised nearly $20 billion of funding under the Community Development Block Grant program. About half has already been released. The United Stated Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville district received nearly $3 billion for civil works projects and studies to manage flood risk throughout Puerto Rico.
This blending of funds and support is key to building a more resilient Puerto Rico for all. Federal and local agencies, nonprofits and private businesses continue to play a role in Puerto Rico’s revival.
Michael Byrne serves as the federal coordinating officer and federal recovery coordinator for FEMA’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria response and recovery in Puerto Rico. Byrne is also the FEMA’s Caribbean area division director.