The Federal Emergency Management Agency faced tough questions Friday by lawmakers who said Vieques still doesn't have a functioning hospital while thousands of other Puerto Ricans continue to wait for their homes to be rebuilt almost three years after Hurricane Maria.
Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., questioned FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor on both matters as the agency prepares for a hectic hurricane season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"Puerto Rico has a surge in infections that is one of the highest, if not the highest, on the mainland," Velázquez said during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. "But my question is why is it that thousands of families in Puerto Rico still do not have a home, especially during this hurricane season?"
Gaynor responded by saying that while "there's no easy answers," FEMA's commitment to Puerto Rico is demonstrated by the more than 2,000 federal employees the agency has on the island. He also added that Puerto Rico's recovery is reliant on "a partnership between FEMA, who does temporary work to keep people in their homes" and the Department of Housing and Urban Development "to do permanent work on houses," as well as cooperation from the local government in Puerto Rico.
"I think the partnership with Puerto Rico, the governor and her staff has never been stronger," he said.
Maria damaged roughly 800,000 homes on Sept. 20, 2017, causing minor damage to some and sweeping many others from their foundations. A federally funded program administered by local officials carried out relatively small repairs to about 108,000 homes in 2018, while churches and nonprofits patched up thousands with private funds.
Puerto Rico’s first major program to rebuild houses hasn’t completed a single one even though tens of thousands of homes still have damaged roofs nearly three years after Maria. Miguel Soto-Class, founder and president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates that about 20,000 people in Puerto Rico are still living under blue tarps.
The program known as R3, which is funded by HUD, is the biggest effort by the local government to carry out major repairs and rebuild destroyed homes. Nearly 27,000 homeowners have applied since federal funding to run the program was released to the island a year and a half ago.
Puerto Rican officials said they are almost done repairing the first 45 homes set to benefit from the program, but no rebuilding job has been completed yet.
The slow progress in helping Puerto Ricans with no homes post-Maria has become a symbol of officials’ inability to address the long-term effects of disasters and crises hitting Puerto Rico, Velázquez said.
Puerto Rico has been facing a cascade of crises over the last few years as it continues to recover from Maria — which became the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years after killing at least 2,975 people — while also working on getting out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Last year, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans marched in the largest protest in its recent history to oust then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló over a political scandal involving him and a dozen members of his Cabinet. Puerto Rico was hit by a seismic sequence that started Dec. 28, triggering multiple strong earthquakes that brought down hundreds of homes, schools and small businesses in January. Since then, over 9,800 tremors have been registered on the island.
About 140,000 residents in Puerto Rico's metropolitan area are now subjected to a government-mandated water rationing as the island faces drought conditions while also coping with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.
Over the past week, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped by more than 1,500, while the number of probable cases increased by almost 1,330. The island of 3.2 million people reported nearly 4,800 confirmed coronavirus cases Friday, more than 9,100 probable ones and at least 191 deaths, according to Puerto Rico's Health Department.
Gaynor said he was committed to continue helping Puerto Rico and other U.S. jurisdictions as they face the coronavirus pandemic while still recovering from previous disasters. He said FEMA is funding an average of 550 recovery projects per month in Puerto Rico and has authorized the use of $25 billion to help the island recover from various disasters — including $39.5 million to help Vieques rebuild its only hospital, which was destroyed by Maria.
The hospital has not been rebuilt yet, even though the funds were approved in January.
"Seven months ago, money was approved for a hospital that was promised to the people of Vieques," which is a smaller island located about seven miles off the mainland of Puerto Rico's eastern coast, Velázquez said, adding that a 13-year-old girl lost her life during that time period after lacking proper medical equipment and facilities in Vieques, where she lived, to treat flu-like symptoms.
"With the COVID pandemic, what are we saying to the children and the elderly in Vieques?" Velázquez said.
Gaynor responded saying that the funding process for the hospital is still underway and they continue to work with local officials on the project. In the meantime, they will continue to provide funding to keep a $4 million temporary hospital running in Vieques.
José Ventura, cousin of the 13-year-old girl who died in Vieques, told NBC News in January that the facility was not well equipped to save her life when her symptoms worsened and she started convulsing.
"To build a $40 million hospital does not happen overnight, but we are committed to make sure that we have adequate healthcare on Vieques, as long as it takes," Gaynor said.
"We are the most powerful country in the world and whenever there has been a natural disaster in other countries, we have moved federal assets to make it happen. Make it happen for the people of Vieques," Velázquez responded.