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Report: Puerto Rico’s infrastructure failing as federal aid remains on hold

Engineers group says hurricane-ravaged island needs up to $23 billion investment over 10 years

A downed electric pole sits in mud more after Hurricane Maria hit the island in October 2017. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A downed electric pole sits in mud more after Hurricane Maria hit the island in October 2017. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

More than two years after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island’s bridges, dams, drinking water, ports, roads and power grids are at a breaking point — and the federal dollars to fix that infrastructure remains out of reach.

So says the American Society of Civil Engineers in a report released Tuesday that assigned the island’s infrastructure an overall grade of D-.

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The ASCE report card represents the first evaluation the organization has done of the island’s infrastructure.

The report found that the infrastructure needs on the island are huge, calculating that Puerto Rico must increase received investment by $1.23 billion to $2.3 billion annually and putting it at $13 to $23 billion over 10 years, not counting deferred maintenance and hurricane-related recovery projects.

Though the report primarily addresses the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s slow release of some $42.5 billion — it only had $15 billion as of May, according to ASCE — its themes reiterate complaints made by members of the House Appropriation Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development last month.

During that Oct. 17 hearing, lawmakers complained that HUD has held back some $19.9 billion in recovery money for Puerto Rico through the department’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Fund. It did so by refusing to post the notice that would instruct Puerto Rico on how to apply for and spend the federal dollars available to it. Because the CDBG disaster fund is not authorized, Puerto Rico does not have access to those dollars until the notice is posted.

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Notices withheld

HUD released similar notices for other disaster-struck areas, but held back on Puerto Rico because of concerns about government corruption on the island, said David Woll, principal deputy assistant secretary for community planning and development at HUD, who called Puerto Rico a “very high-risk grantee” because of the large amount of money and corruption issues that have troubled the local government.

“We want to have a belts and suspenders plan in place to make sure that, A, we’re protecting taxpayers, but B — more importantly — the money is going to the people of Puerto Rico and not being wasted or abused,” he said.

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That answer did not satisfy Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., chairman of the subcommittee, who said that even after the notice is posted, there will be multiple opportunities to make sure the money is being spent appropriately.

Once available, the federal dollars from the CDBG disaster recovery program can be spent on projects laid out in the ASCE report, such as hardening electrical grids in order to minimize the impact of future storms.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s electric grid in 2017, causing the island to experience the longest blackout in American history and the second-longest blackout in the world, according to the ASCE, which gave the island’s energy grid an “F” grade on its report card.

“We’ve seen the urgent need for this funding,” said Price. “And yet, it has been held back.”

Congress tried to force HUD to post the Puerto Rico disaster funding notice in June in the supplemental appropriations bill by requiring the secretary to do so by Sept. 4. But Sept. 4 came and went with no notice for Puerto Rico.

“The administration has a duty to faithfully execute the law,” Price said. “Why didn’t HUD follow the law, issue the Federal Register notice for mitigation funding for Puerto Rico?”

Republicans on the panel including Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida also expressed dismay that the dollars have not yet been released, saying he was “troubled” that the agency missed the statutory deadline for publishing the notice.

“What it looks like is that you don’t believe that these individuals deserve this money, that these individuals deserve access to disaster recovery dollars,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif.

“That’s just not true,” said Woll, adding that the agency is “working extremely hard” to get the money to Puerto Rico.

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