Guajataca Dam damage on Sept. 28, 2017, in Quebradillas Municipality, Puerto Rico, caused by heavy rains from Hurricane Maria. (Eliud Echevarria/FEMA)

GAO Tells FEMA to Improve Puerto Rico Recovery and Cost Guidance

After two hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, FEMA identified about 10,000 damaged sites including schools, hospitals, and roads needing funds to repair or rebuild.

Puerto Rico estimates that $132 billion in funding will be needed to repair and reconstruct the infrastructure damaged by the hurricanes through 2028.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Puerto Rico manage a Public Assistance Program that provides federal funds to state and local governments and some nonprofits to help in recovery efforts.

FEMA has issued recovery policy and guidance that are specific to Puerto Rico’s evolving conditions. But a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review found recovery partners did not know which guidance to follow and that accessing it can be difficult.

As of September 30, 2019, FEMA had obligated nearly $6 billion in Public Assistance grants to Puerto Rico for 1,558 projects since the September 2017 hurricanes. Of this $6 billion, $5.1 billion was obligated for emergency work projects such as debris removal and temporary power restoration. However, FEMA and Puerto Rico faced challenges in developing long-term, permanent work projects under the Public Assistance program.

The large number of damaged sites and delays in establishing cost estimation guidance specific to Puerto Rico have also presented challenges to developing projects, according to FEMA and Puerto Rico officials. GAO says both parties must agree to fixed cost estimates for these projects before work can begin.

FEMA and Puerto Rico had approved fixed cost estimates for 19 projects as of September 2019, out of 9,344 damaged sites in Puerto Rico, such as schools, hospitals, and roads. FEMA and Puerto Rico have recently taken actions, including extending the deadline for fixed cost estimates, to address these challenges – but it is too soon for GAO to assess their impact.

FEMA has adapted its Public Assistance cost estimating guidance to accurately reflect costs in Puerto Rico but could improve the guidance to further enhance its reliability. GAO found that FEMA’s guidance substantially or fully met best practices for nine of 12 steps included in the GAO Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide, such as documenting and defining the purpose of the estimate. However, GAO says FEMA could improve the guidance in three areas, including analyzing risks and future uncertainties that could affect these estimates.

DHS concurred with the review’s recommendation that FEMA revise its cost estimating guidance for Public Assistance projects to fully align with all 12 steps in the GAO Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide. DHS stated that FEMA will create a quality assurance checklist as an addendum to FEMA’s Cost Estimating Format (CEF) to ensure that cost estimates reflect best practices from the GAO Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide.

GAO also recommended that FEMA develop a repository for all current applicable Public Assistance policies and guidance for Puerto Rico to be made available to all recovery partners. DHS requested that GAO consider this recommendation resolved and closed as implemented, stating that FEMA maintains Public Assistance policy and guidance documents, including those specific to Puerto Rico, on the agency’s public web site, which FEMA will continue to update. DHS also stated that FEMA maintains non-publicly available reference documents on the agency’s internal web site through the Grants Manager and Grants Portal systems.

However, GAO noted that Puerto Rico’s recovery is a complex and dynamic process that requires the coordination of many recovery partners, including numerous municipalities and commonwealth agencies. For this reason, it maintains that ensuring information is distributed in an accessible manner would provide greater assurance that all recovery partners are aware of the most current and applicable Public Assistance policies and guidance. GAO will monitor FEMA’s public and internal web sites, including policy and guidance updates, to assess whether the actions outlined by FEMA meet the intent of this recommendation.

At the end of January, FEMA and the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) obligated over $22.1 million in additional funds for 33 projects related to the recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico.

The latest grants obligated are:

  • Over $14.4 million for repairs to parks and recreational facilities.
  • Over $6 million for repairs to roads and bridges.
  • Over $817,000 for debris removal.
  • Nearly $403,000 for repairs to public buildings and equipment.
  • Nearly $312,000 for emergency protective measures.
  • Over $74,000 for municipal governments for administrative costs.
  • Over $62,000 for repairs to public utilities.

The obligation for repairs to parks and recreational facilities includes nearly $14.3 million for repair and restoration work to the historic Cuartel de Ballajá, in Old San Juan.

Read the full report at GAO

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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