Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01) visited Puerto Rico last week for the third consecutive year to discuss the island’s hurricane recovery process with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) operation center in Guaynabo, as well as to join the Salvation Army’s charitable Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter and a children’s orphanage.
Rep. Fitzpatrick shared a one-on-one interview with THE WEEKLY JOURNAL last Wednesday, the day after his arrival, to offer his insight on Puerto Rico’s most pressing issues two years after Hurricane Maria devastated virtually every sector of the island, prompting the U.S. Congress to appropriate billions of funds to alleviate and rebuild.
The most recent data offered by the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) indicates that Congress approved nearly $48.1 billion in disaster relief funds through FEMA and the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief program (CDBG-DR). Of these, however, some $21.4 billion have been obligated and only $14.7 billion have been disbursed.
FEMA and the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience, or COR3, have oblig…
Moreover, two top officials in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) acknowledged last October that they knowingly missed a legally-required deadline to issue a notice that would have enacted a process for Puerto Rico to access more of these funds. This was revealed less than two months after HUD announced that it would delay $9 billion in disaster relief funds to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were also devastated in Sept. 2017.
In both scenarios, federal officials cited corruption concerns, pointing to the federal investigations that led to high-profile arrests earlier this year, as well as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation last summer after weeks of protests.
When asked to respond to this latest development, Fitzpatrick stated that he was unaware of the missed notice, but that he would discuss the situation with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González to “figure out what’s going on.”
“My understanding is that the funding goes through the Department of Homeland Security. If there are concerns about corruption at the local level, that should be vetted when they award contracts,” he said.
He added, “but I gotta tell you, I’ve been checking up on FEMA for the third year now and I come out here so that I can have them tell me what you need from us in the federal government because I work closely with Jenniffer González.”
Having experience as a former member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Political Corruption Unit, Fitzpatrick stated that political corruption undermines people’s confidence in their government, but it requires action from both law enforcement and voters to hold elected officials to “the highest standards.”
Although some federal officials, including President Donald Trump, have denounced corruption on the island, Fitzpatrick affirmed that last summer’s historic political developments did not have a negative impact on Congress’s perception of Puerto Rico’s capability to manage federal funds. “We stand by Puerto Rico and we’re glad that that situation resolved itself,” he said.
The bill will authorize the government of Puerto Rico to hold the first federally sponsored status vote in the island’s history
The Republican congressman did acknowledge that Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory, or commonwealth, hinders its access to funding parity compared to states of the nation. Thus, he asserted that he supports Rep. González in her quest to achieve statehood for Puerto Rico, claiming that annexation would lead to both equal representation in Congress and an equal number of benefits.
“I’m a close sponsor of the [statehood] bill. Anything Jenniffer needs me for, I’m here for—anything that can support the people of Puerto Rico, because I am very close to the Puerto Rican community in my home state, in my home district, and I made a commitment after Maria that we were going to make sure that Puerto Rico is taken care of,” Fitzpatrick said.
Puerto Rico Needs “21st-Century Infrastructure”
Apart from sociopolitical obstacles, Fitzpatrick observed that one of Puerto Rico’s greatest challenges is its decaying infrastructure.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently issued an infrastructure report card in which seven out of eight categories were graded with a D plus-minus, whereas electricity received an F.
Energy receives a failing grade, while other categories are in poor or at-risk conditions
“There’s a couple of issues there. Number one, the infrastructure is very old. Many of the components in the infrastructure—both power and water—were installed a generation ago. That’s a big challenge. And secondly, when the hurricane came through it thwarted a lot of the infrastructure, so it was a big challenge to get that back up and running,” he said.
He also noted that while states in the mainland have both municipal water and power authorities to serve a local region, the island has essentially one power authority and one water authority to serve all 78 municipalities, including the municipal islands of Vieques and Culebra. “That’s, logistically, a huge challenge as far as making sure that service is operating at its peak,” he added.
Moreover, Fitzpatrick affirmed that Puerto Rico needs “21st-century infrastructure” to direct water and supply power in “modern ways.” The crippling state of these institutions is one of the reasons why basically the entire Commonwealth remained without energy, water and telecommunications services for months—more than one year in some areas—which in turn impacted public safety, health and other essential services.
One of the items on his agenda was to hold a meeting with the Puerto Rican Joint Recovery Office to receive updates on the Guajataca Dam, which was devastated during the hurricane. Last February, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) rationed water in the seven municipalities that this manmade lake serves due to insufficient rainfall.
Moreover, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI by its Spanish initials) reported last April that the government drained the reservoir at the height of the drought. From his meeting, Fitzpatrick gathered that the government agency tasked with overseeing the dam’s repair “put a lot of work into that, and that’s exactly the kind of dam and the kind of engineering that Puerto Rico needs.”
“We also have people here in the Department of Transportation making sure that Puerto Rico has the resources and the support that it needs to make a full recovery. According to every single FEMA official that I’ve met, Maria was the worst national disaster that they’ve ever witnessed in their life, and they’ve seen a lot,” he said.
Secretary Manuel Laboy acknowledges government’s hits and analyzes areas for improvement
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked the congressman to give his opinion on what the local and federal governments can do differently not only to optimize recovery resources, but to ensure that Puerto Rico and its residents remain resilient ahead of future challenges.
“The first thing we need to do is get the citizenry involved in their government to make sure that they are electing people that are going to carry out their will… that have very close ties stateside with the United States, encourage members of Congress like myself to come out here and visit and spend time with the people, spend time with the leaders. That’s what really needs to happen,” he responded.
“And you need, on my side of things, we need my colleagues in Congress to come out here, to spend time seeing things like I saw today, talking to people like you, and making sure that we establish a close relationship,” he added.
Editor's note: This story was published on the December 4 print edition of The Weekly Journal.