AP NEWS

Puerto Rico to take over storm fund reimbursement from FEMA

March 25, 2019

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Federal officials say they are giving Puerto Rico’s government greater authority to issue hurricane recovery funds, a measure that should help speed reimbursement for cities and agencies trying to rebuild after the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria.

Officials said that starting April 1, the U.S. territory will no longer have to wait for approval from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency before issuing reimbursements.

There’s currently an average two-month wait for reimbursement after people submit all required documents. Under the upcoming change, 75 percent of funds will be issued within three weeks after a request is submitted, with the remaining amount issued once the project is finished, said Omar Marrero, executive director of Puerto Rico’s Office of Recovery and Reconstruction.

Puerto Rico’s government has 130 requests for reimbursements pending, representing a total of roughly $600 million, according to Marrero’s office.

Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal disaster recovery coordinator in Puerto Rico, said he is confident the island has implemented sufficient policies and regulations to ensure that federal funds will be correctly spent. He also rejected criticism that FEMA has been slow in distributing funds since the Category 4 storm hit on Sept. 20, 2017, causing more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.

“The perception that we’re dragging our feet or withholding money is wrong,” he said. “That said, we need some documentation.”

While FEMA will no longer review or approving reimbursement requests, it will conduct quarterly audits.

“This is probably going to be the most audited disaster in U.S. history,” Marrero said.

Puerto Rico has so far received nearly $3 billion from FEMA through the public assistance grant program. FEMA has issued another $2 billion for individual assistance.

Puerto Rico also has received $1.5 billion in community development block grant disaster recovery funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report on Monday stating that Puerto Rico had not drawn down any of the money.

The report said HUD lacks sufficient guidance for employees reviewing paperwork related to those funds and that it has not completed monitoring or workforce plans.

“Congress should consider permanently authorizing a disaster assistance program that meets unmet needs in a timely manner,” the report stated.

HUD said in a statement that it historically takes grantees several years to disburse disaster recovery funding. It also said it will impose strict financial controls on funds issued to Puerto Rico.