SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The newly appointed U.S. official charged with overseeing disaster recovery in Puerto Rico said Tuesday that while the pace of federally funded projects to help hurricane and earthquake victims has quickened, he’s worried about long term efforts.
The comments by Peter Brown, White House special representative for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery, came after he met for the first time with officials in the U.S. territory amid criticism that the local and federal government response has been slow.
“The reputation seems to lag the reality. The reality is improving,” he said, adding that he will report to U.S. President Donald Trump upon his return to the U.S. mainland. “I think he will be convinced that federal money and federal efforts is being spent wisely here.”
Ever since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in September 2017, Trump has been accused of delaying and denying aid to the U.S. territory amid concerns of corruption and government inefficiency on the island. The U.S. Congress has approved nearly $50 billion to help Puerto Rico, but federal officials have only disbursed roughly $15 billion.
Brown, who previously served as commander of the Miami-based U.S. Coast Guard’s Seventh District, said that while he’s aware many were dissatisfied with the pace of recovery, it has changed dramatically in part because of the relationship with Puerto Rico’s new governor.
Alex Amparo, Puerto Rico’s coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the agency was tentatively approving 10-15 projects a month six months ago. Now, it’s up to 160 projects per month.
“We’re seeing results,” he said. “Expect that to continue.”
In addition to helping hurricane victims, FEMA also is providing federal funds for those affected by a 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck Jan. 7 followed by strong aftershocks that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes along the island’s south coast. Amparo said FEMA has received nearly 30,000 requests for assistance and issued some $19 million as a result, including $5 million for rental housing.
However, Brown warned it will take years for Puerto Rico to recover from the hurricane and earthquakes.
“My main concern is sustainability,” he said. “This is not a one-time injection of money into the economy or infrastructure of Puerto Rico… Continuity is vital.”
The meeting with Brown came just days after Gov. Wanda Vázquez wrote to the U.S. Senate. Her letter urged it to approve a bill that would allocate nearly $5 billion in emergency supplement funding after Trump approved a major disaster declaration for more than two dozen Puerto Rican municipalities following the earthquake.
She noted that more than 100 public schools remain closed and nearly 900 people are still in shelters after the earthquake, all while Puerto Rico is mired in a 13-year recession.
“The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have faced drastic challenges in recent years from the debt crisis to the severe storm damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” she wrote. “It is my hope Congress acts quickly to respond to the island in this time of great need.”