Local12News: After the hurricanes, Puerto Rico's problems hamper its recovery
It’s been two years since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico back to back, devastating the U.S. territory. The recovery is now on the books as the most expensive and complicated one on record for an American natural disaster. But we found that little aid has made it to the residents who need it most.
Part of the problem is that federal disaster officials have conflicting missions. First, they want to get aid out as quickly as possible to those who need it. But for a territory that’s already in bankruptcy and is in the middle of a corruption scandal, it’s more important than ever that money not be transferred and spent without a great deal of documentation and all the rules being followed. This takes time.
Meantime, there’s been a great deal of reporting, much of it confusing or incorrect, about U.S. tax dollars committed to hurricane relief in the U.S. island territory. Our Full Measure investigation got to the bottom of the true numbers. We also dug into allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse.
There have been arrests of numerous people who were Puerto Rican officials handling the money, contractors bidding on contracts to fix the damage, and even Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials in charge of overseeing the recovery effort.
Here are some of the key findings of our Full Measure investigation:
The U.S. has committed to possibly providing up to $91 billion for the recovery effort: the most tax money ever devoted to natural disaster recovery in America.
An estimated $48 billion dollars for Puerto Rico will come from emergency recovery funds.
$43 billion more has been appropriated by Congress so far.
The island has only actually received about $14 billion federal tax dollars to date.
The biggest single chunk of money, $5 billion was spent fixing the electric system, which was already failing before the hurricane. This expenditure is the subject of a bribery allegation, as discussed below.
Nearly $20 billion has been earmarked for housing and shelter under the category of “community planning and development.” Surprisingly, less than a million dollars has been paid out.
62,000 Puerto Rican hurricane victims have been denied emergency help for technical reasons.
As of my recent visit to Puerto Rico, not one school had received recovery money to conduct permanent repairs two years after the hurricanes.
The FBI has arrested six top Puerto Rican government officials and consultants. The agency has also charged FEMA official Ahsha Tribble, who was once an Obama Homeland Security adviser. She served as the lead on that big effort to get Puerto Rico’s electric grid fixed. She’s accused of taking bribes to steer a $1.8 billion dollar contract to a company called Cobra. The FBI also arrested the man who was Cobra’s CEO at the time and a FEMA friend of Tribble’s who went to work for Cobra. All have denied wrongdoing.
The 2017 hurricanes in Puerto Rico damaged more than a million homes, collapsed roads and knocked out power to many residents for months. There were mudslides, sinkholes, and flooding. Only a tiny fraction of the record amount of tax money committed to helping has been used.
Although residents and relief workers would like to see relief funds being spent more quickly to help, there is also concern that if the money isn’t carefully tracked, documented and doled out— more could be lost to waste, fraud and abuse.