Puerto Rico is bouncing back but is still waiting for much of the aid it needs to finish repairing infrastructure and homes. Congress approved $48.5 billion for island recovery, but just $15 billion has been disbursed.
(TNS) — As the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 7th District based in Miami, Rear Adm. Peter J. Brown helped rush lifesaving aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled the island in 2017.
Now Brown has a taller order: help the U.S. territory of 3.2 million recover from those natural disasters as well as a series of earthquakes that began Dec. 28.
As the newly appointed White House special representative for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery, Brown will have to navigate a quagmire of bureaucracy, local and national politics, and perceptions, fueled by his boss, President Donald Trump, that the island is hopelessly corrupt.
Speaking from Washington, D.C., last week, Brown said his goal is to speed up the post-disaster recovery while making sure funds are getting to the people who need help most.
“I’m not sure I will have the power to bend time, but I can raise the level of attention that (Puerto Rico) gets for its issues,” he told the Miami Herald. “I do have the ear of senior officials and other offices in the White House and in other departments and agencies.”
Hurricane Maria caused almost $100 billion in damage and created conditions — power and communication outages, collapsed bridges — that led to the deaths of more than 3,000 people.
And while Puerto Rico has bounced back, it’s still waiting for much of the aid it needs to finish repairing infrastructure and homes. Congress has approved $48.5 billion for the island’s recovery, but just 31%, or $15 billion, has been disbursed, according to government statistics.
The slow release of those funds has led to accusations that the White House is withholding aid, but Brown said those billion-dollar commitments — in both obligated and allocated funds — need to be put into perspective.
“Both those numbers vastly exceed Puerto Rico’s annual operating budget of about $9 billion dollars, so we can’t expect that money to flow through the government structures in Puerto Rico all that quickly,” he said. “If there are any friction spots or slow spots, I am sure they will be identified to me and I will do my very best … to smooth those over and expedite delivering those already obligated funds into effective relief.”
Puerto Rico has been stuck in a decadelong recession that has left the public sector gutted and prone to mismanagement.
Last month, authorities found a warehouse full of unused emergency aid at a time when thousands of people were sleeping on the streets after earthquakes. More recently, it was revealed that local agencies lost $2.6 million due to an online phishing scam.
Trump has often amplified the island’s shortcomings, calling Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth,” and its leaders “incompetent.”
In January, when the administration released nearly $16 billion in aid, it also put complicated and tough restrictions on those funds, including capping what the island can pay federal contract workers.
Brown said there’s nothing unfair about the additional rules.
“There is nothing compassionate about allowing corruption to occur,” he said. “Fiscal controls to prevent corruption are an element of the interest and compassion of this administration to make sure that the money turns into action for the people of Puerto Rico.”
Asked about funding priorities, Brown said Puerto Rico needs to overhaul its electrical infrastructure. After Maria, it took more than 11 months for electricity to be completely restored, and power outages are still frequent.
“The system, despite some recovery efforts, remains fragile and vulnerable,” he said. “It was for that reason that last year, when Hurricane Dorian threatened Puerto Rico, the federal government, led by (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), prepared to respond as if Dorian was two categories stronger than initially forecast.”
In the end, Dorian narrowly missed Puerto Rico and devastated parts of the Bahamas.
But Brown said it shouldn’t be controversial that Puerto Rico is still recovering from Maria.
“There are still projects going on after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy from 2012,” on the U.S. mainland, he said. “The fact that we are still responding to and recovering from a hurricane that took place less than three years ago is not surprising.”
The renewed focus on Puerto Rico comes as the island is gearing up for the Democratic primary on March 29. While Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote in the U.S. general election, their 54 Democratic delegates (more than 24 other states) might still shape the playing field in a tight primary race.
Brown has a deep connection with Puerto Rico. After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in 1985, he went to work on the cutter Sage Brush, which had its home port in Old San Juan.
During that tour he met his wife, a Dominican American college student at the time.
Brown joined the White House in July 2019 as the homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
Prior to that, he was the commander of the Coast Guard’s 7th District in Miami, where he was responsible for all Coast Guard operations in the Southeast United States and the Caribbean Basin.
His new job will allow him to help the region that has played such a large role in his career, and break the perception that the White House is neglecting Puerto Rico.
“President Trump and his administration are committed to this effort,” he said. “We have thousands of people on the island and billions of dollars already allocated to this effort. And for reasons that are still a little bit unclear, sometimes that story is not getting out very well.”
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