On August 2nd, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that it would be withholding disaster aid dollars designated for Puerto Rico and appointing a monitor to oversee the administration of disaster relief given the “government’s alleged corruption.”
Three weeks later, at the peak of hurricane season, the agency still can’t offer any information about the selection process or the number of people under consideration, they can only say that HUD Secretary Ben Carson will make the appointment.
In a telephone interview with THE WEEKLY JOURNAL, HUD Supervisory Public Affairs Specialist Brian Sullivan said “the selection process is underway... it’s taking place beyond me”.
Sullivan was also unable to divulge when HUD would announce the requirements for the disbursement of disaster mitigation funds for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which would give Puerto Ricans much needed assistance for “mitigation and electrical power system improvements.”
“The specific rules for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are under review by the Office of Management and Budget,” HUD’s spokesperson responded.
The question arose last Friday after Carson approved and posted on the agency’s website the requirements for $6.8 billion in Community Development Block Grants Mitigation funds (CDBG-Mitigation) for Texas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, California, Missouri, and Georgia, but excluded Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, as anticipated.
Last March, HUD approved Puerto Rico’s Amended Action Plan appropriating $8.2 billion of Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds to assist in the island’s recovery after the havoc caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria almost two years ago. The funds can be used for unmet housing, economic revitalization and infrastructure.
Before this grant, Congress had assigned $1.5 billion in CDBG-DR on February 1, 2018, just four months after Maria pummeled the island. Puerto Rico should also receive another $8.2 million in CDBG-Mitigation funds.
Worried by the delay in the disbursement of disaster aid, the Puerto Rico Builders Association and the National Association of Home Builders wrote to Carson seeking answers and reminding the neurosurgeon of the lives at risk.
“Twenty three months since the disaster hit our island, there are still over 30,000 families living under blue tarps, along with tens of thousands without the resources to repair or rebuild their homes. We estimate that around 70,000 homes need to be completely rebuilt and around 180,000 need some sort of repair,” stated Emilio Colón, chairman of the Board of the P.R. Builders Association, in a letter dated August 19th.
Last May, former governor Ricardo Rosselló announced that the official tally of homes that still had tarpaulin on their roofs stood at 30,000, islandwide.
“Expediting the much needed recovery funding has to be a priority. Certainly, not having an implementation plan for when this monitor is announced has only made matters worse for the people who need assistance,” Colón insisted.
In the letter, the engineer also proposed to resume the original disbursement plan since the Puerto Rico Department of Housing has not been accused of mismanagement of funds during Fernando Gil’s tenure at the agency.
“Under Secretary Gil’s leadership, the Department successfully managed FEMA’s Shelter in Place and Temporary Emergency Power Program, with no adverse finding from the DHS Inspector General’s Office.
Further delaying recovery resources for the American citizens that reside in Puerto Rico is unacceptable. We urge HUD to continue supporting our island’s recovery by expediting implementation of any additional monitoring measures of recovery funds,” Colón pointed out.
The letter to Carson is only part of the strategy. He explained that a delegation from the Builders Association would descend on Washington D.C. next month to lobby for an end to this situation.
“We must find a solution. We are talking about thousands of people who lost their homes,” he said.
While the organization does not have the standing to take legal action against the federal government, Colón recognized that local authorities should not discard that route.
“Eventually the local government is going to have to contemplate that option,” he indicated.
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL reached the Central Office for Reconstruction, Recovery and Resiliency, the Puerto Rico Housing Department and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority for a comment, but at the time of press they had not answered.