Reconstruction efforts for recreational and sporting events fail to get off the ground. In 30 months, only 4% of the obligated funds for this category have been disbursed.
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) confirmed that the destruction and neglect of Puerto Rico’s basketball courts and parks, which persists almost two and a half years after Hurricane María, hinder recreational activity to the point that it affects economically the sports and recreation sector and has forced communities, federations and some municipalities to scramble to substitute or rescue at their own cost these spaces for social and athletic meets. People still cannot use many of these public structures because the disbursement of most of the recovery funds for repairs hasn’t happened.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides, under the public assistance category, provides funds for these purposes under “parks, recreational facilities and others.”
Through January, $36,035,293 have been obligated in funds for 33 towns and eight government agencies, for 80 projects listed under the G-category (defined as Parks and Recreation) according to the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3). Of those municipalities, only 16 have received some sort of disbursement for work already done: Arroyo, Barranquitas, Camuy, Cataño, Corozal, Guayanilla, Hatillo, Hormigueros, Jayuya, Orocovis, Sabana Grande, San Germán, Toa Alta, Toa Baja, Vega Baja and Vieques. Projects include tracks and field vents, basketball courts, baseball parks, passive parks and community centers.
In January, FEMA disbursed $1,439,643 under the G-category, which includes “parks, recreational areas and other facilities,” representing 4% of the total obligation for that category .
Yabucoa Mayor Rafael Surillo-Ruiz, said the municipal baseball park hasn’t been used since the hurricane made landfall in September 2017, entering the island through the town he manages.
Although it is one of the island’s leading franchises in the Puerto Rican baseball circuit, the “Azucareros de Yabucoa” have been unable to play at their Félix “Nacho” Millán Stadium during the past two Double-A baseball seasons. Their local games in 2018 and 2019 were played at the municipal stadium owned by their regional archrivals, the “Los Artesanos” from Las Piedras.
“For us, the stadium is a priority in terms of providing recreational facilities to Yabucoa. If the stadium is in a condition that merits that it be demolished, why is FEMA evaluating its spotlights and paint?” Surillo-Ruiz said.
As part of FEMA’s mitigation protocols, the paint on structures for which funds are being requested is evaluated to determine if it contains lead. For the “Azucareros” stadium to be eligible for demolition according to FEMA rules — as Surillo hopes — the calculated damage must be 50% or more of the property value.
According to the Yabucoa mayor, the municipality’s hands are tied with that and other projects still awaiting for the obligation of FEMA funds. He fears investing money from the municipal coffers that the federal agency may not reimburse later.
“You need those spaces where the community meets for sports and recreation. It is important to close this chapter and that children have optimal facilities for sports and healthy living,” said the mayor of Loíza, Julia Nazario-Fuentes, to the CPI.
In Loíza, a total of 18 recreational facilities are waiting to be fixed, the mayor said. Some places have been repaired or rebuilt thanks to donations from foundations and artists such as Marc Anthony and Bad Bunny. However, the municipality is having problems with the Miguel Fuentes Stadium, home of Double-A baseball team “Los Cocoteros” de Loíza. Although the municipal administration restored that facility and contributed to fixing the electronic billboard, the roof and stand seats still need repair.
“The Department of Sports and Recreation (DRD in Spanish) told us that FEMA was close to disbursing $1.7 million for the stadium,” Nazario-Fuentes said about a meeting in which the DRD’s deputy secretary, Juan Figueroa, told her about the future disbursement of recovery funds.
However, the mayor said she didn’t know when that money will be available and stopped the stadium’s repair work with municipal funds after she was promised the pending disbursement of FEMA funds. The DRD confirmed Figueroa’s meeting with Nazario, but said he did not know when the money promised to Loíza would be disbursed, claiming that the transaction depended on FEMA.
“FEMA is moving slow, slow, slow as molasses,” said the Loíza official.
In contrast to the uncertainty Surillo-Ruiz and Nazario Fuentes are experiencing, their Bayamón counterpart, Ramón Luis Rivera-Cruz, is confident that FEMA will obligate the recovery funds corresponding to all projects included in the municipal mitigation plan. This includes projects related to parks, and recreational and sports facilities. Bayamón was the first municipality that got FEMA approval for its mitigation plan.
In this case, the municipal government made 217 damage reports, which are grouped into 99 projects, including facilities that fall under the G public assistance category, according to COR3.
“It’s unlikely that the projects that are already in the system won’t receive the funds . The process is slow and so all municipalities are going to repair facilities at their own speed. We believe all our projects will get approved,” Rivera-Cruz told the CPI.
Despite not having received the disbursement of recovery funds to repair or rebuild parks and recreational facilities, Bayamón allocated municipal funds and began work on the rehabilitation of some buildings, tracks and sites for sports use. Some of these projects are the Rubén Rodríguez Coliseum, the Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium, the Bayamón Soccer Complex, the Vaqueros Volleyball Complex and the community sports facilities in the Valencia sector.
For the fiscal year in which Hurricane Maria (2017-2018) occurred, Yabucoa’s annual budget was $13,672,733, Loíza’s was $8,816,109, while Bayamón’s was $119,000,223. The eye of the powerful hurricane made landfall exactly along the coast of Yabucoa.
When FEMA was asked about the possibilities that municipalities would receive a reimbursement for those recreational projects in which repair work has already begun, Juan Andrés Muñoz-Torres, then director of external affairs of the agency in Puerto Rico, said “it will reimburse the applicants for all eligible projects they have done in eligible facilities. The applicant is responsible for providing the necessary documentation to support their claim.”
One of FEMA’s requirements for those requesting these recovery funds is that insurance companies pay for 50% of the cost of repair. In the event that the insurance does not cover that 50%, it will be up to the government or municipal applicants to pay what the insurance does not cover. However, there may be cases in which FEMA could determined, if the project is eligible, to fund it fully .
Surillo-Ruiz believes that the time it is taking FEMA to evaluate large projects, coupled with the refusal of some insurance companies to honor the claims from the municipalities, is creating an atmosphere of uncertainty. He assured he submitted all documents that FEMA requested for the municipality’s projects in August 2018.
“FEMA is still evaluating damages in large projects. It’s going to take no less than five years,” said Surillo-Ruiz, who also explained that, although the demolition and reconstruction of the municipal baseball stadium will cost between $8 million and $10 million, the insurance will only cover $2 million. That figure does not comply with the 50% rule that FEMA requires, so the municipality will have to find the outstanding $2 million to $4 million.
The case of the Yabucoa stadium is an example of the many other sports facilities in many other municipalities where insurance companies have not responded adequately.
Meanwhile, last December, Gov. Wanda Vázquez-Garced announced the creation of the $100 million State Recovery Fund Account to finance “small” FEMA G-category projects. Small projects are considered to be those with an estimated cost of up to $123,100.
“This involves about 120 basketball courts, 30 baseball parks, 50 passive parks, 21 playgrounds, 28 recreational facilities, more than 25 sports complexes. Municipalities will be able to launch their projects with this new account,” Vázquez-Garced said in a press conference.
Only those projects that are already in the cost estimate phase are eligible. Of the $100 million in the account, approximately $55 million has already been committed for the first 1,316 projects, of which 365 fall under the G-category. Projects such as those needed in the Double-A baseball stadiums in Yabucoa and Loíza are not eligible for these funds because they exceed the small-project limit of $123,100.
In addition to the municipalities, central government agencies have requested G-category recovery funds. Among them is the Department of Sports and Recreation.
“I have always said that the hurricane affected all of the facilities, because even if it was a cyclone fence that fell over, then it’s a cyclone fence that I have to fix. Most of the parks, if not all of them, have a fence that fell over,” said DRD Secretary Adriana Sánchez-Parés to CPI.
Of the DRD’s approximate 400 facilities, 191 are in the agency’s initial group needing repair, according to Sánchez-Parés. Of these, only five projects have funds obligated by FEMA, according to COR3. These projects are the Mayagüez Terrace Soccer Complex, Jardines de Santa Isabel, Hato Arriba in San Sebastián, Los Alamos Urbanization in San Sebastián and the Guánica Urban Park. Only the Guánica project has received the recovery funds disbursement.
Like municipalities and other government agencies, the DRD turned to the government General Fund for money to make repairs. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has been repairing light posts in parks and community centers , Sánchez-Parés told CPI. Private entities, such as NBA basketball player José Juan Barea’s foundation, donated resources to repair the courts. This aid allowed moving ahead on repairs while FEMA evaluates the DRD’s request for recovery funds.
In some cases, certain recreational projects for which recovery funds are requested warrant that FEMA classify them as “A&E” (architectural and engineering design) due to their complexity and specialized design. Those projects may take longer, according to the DRD chief. Those projects, classified as “A&E”, undergo an inspection that seeks to ensure that the repair or reconstruction will result in a better structure than the original.
“The relationship with FEMA, like many things in life , has improved over time because we understand each other better. This process was complicated while we established working relationship among all parties, because it’s not just FEMA and us. COR3 is also involved . They’re all processes that are required to ensure that what is claimed is hurricane related, that what’s needed is being what is being requested and that it will be used for those purposes,” said Sánchez Parés.
In addition to the challenges the DRD is facing to repair those facilities under its management , a 2018 law shifted the management of the Puerto Rico National Parks Program to the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, in Spanish). The DRD previously managed the program.
This change of authority over the National Park Program from one agency to another was criticized by the Central Federation of Workers (FCT, in Spanish), who claimed that the DRNA was not efficient in prioritizing the rehabilitation and repair of recreational facilities it is now overseeing.
“It has been the worst thing that has happened to workers in recent years,” said FCT President Juan Cortés-Valle, referring to the transfer of the DRD program to the DRNA.
According to Cortés-Valle, former DRNA Secretary Tania Vázquez ignored employee requests to restore recreational spaces, including public beaches, small inns (paradores) and the Cavernas del Río Camuy park.
“She (Vázquez) had no initiatives for the parks program to bounce back after Hurricane María. What they want is for the program to eventually fail ,” said Cortés-Valle, who suggested that government neglect responds to an agenda to privatize some of those very attractive recreational facilities.
Vázquez stepped down from the DRNA and the Environmental Quality Board in October, amid accusations of irregularities in the contracting practices at both agencies.
“Actually the area that the National Parks Program covers is so specialized and so different that there will never be an agency that you can say ‘this is the only and most appropriate one to manage and oversee the national parks’”, said Sanchez-Parés, in response to the question of whether the transfer of the national parks to the DRNA was a wise decision.
“While it’s true that the nature of the public beaches is recreational and one could say that the Department of Sports and Recreation is the most ideal, there is an environmental aspect of beach cleaning (and) maintenance, natural resource management, permits , that must go through the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, so then you can say, the appropriate [agency] is Natural Resources. It also has an area related to vacation accommodations, which is more associated with Tourism, small inns or hotels, so you would say that [the Tourism Company] should handle it,” he said.
Communities and sports leagues step forward in the recovery
The slow evaluation and disbursement of recovery funds for public recreational facilities projects has led communities and private groups to take the initiative and organize to promote the development of sports and recreational activities, even though they don’t always have the resources and sometimes their efforts are hindered.
In Salinas, community and recreational leaders regret that the delay in recovery limits opportunities for young people leisure . They mentioned the baseball field and park next to El Coquí Middle School on route PR-3. They proposed that, if the government removes what was left of the roof after the hurricane — which is the dangerous part of that sports complex, as the CPI confirmed during a visit — the neighbors would assume the responsibility of removing the branches and debris from the basketball court and the baseball park grounds to use the facilities.
“The community would clean it up. The need is there,” said Joseph Danner, a sports coach from Salinas.
“Right now, you can’t play sports in that park that was mostly used for little leagues and softball. This year we couldn’t play because the park is closed. FEMA closed the El Coquí basketball court and it can’t be used. It has to be demolished,” said Josué Clausell, a member of the Jobos Bay Eco-development Initiative (IDEBAJO, in Spanish).
Danner and Clausell claims have been presented to government authorities and go hand in hand with recreational and sports community self-management strategies, aware that they cannot depend on the arrival of recovery funds for their projects.
Since May 1, 2018, Danner has led a women’s volleyball project for girls and teenagers. He currently runs an academy with 10 teams that play at the Las Margaritas community facilities. The recreational leader stressed that the value of his project is to provide opportunities for teenagers, in particular, for young women.
“The women’s field has been unappreciated. What is being done here (in Salinas) at the sports facilities is for adults. Sports facilities are recovering, but just the ones used by adults,” Danner said.
His efforts have not been exempted from FEMA’s requirements for the use of the basketball court in Las Margaritas.
“An engineer had to go to the community to certify why FEMA did not want us there because the roof was bent. The Mayor (Karilyn Bonilla-Colón) told us that the situation is that FEMA does not want to repair it; it wants it removed and re-installed,” said Danner, who also explained that the federal agency allowed them to use the court, but it must be monitored “daily,” in case any damage comes up that threatens the safety of the players and the public.
Community sport is not the only one hurt by the ravages of María. Adult leagues, including professional circuits, have had to manage to keep athletics as a viable activity.
Baseball is an example. During the 2019-2020 season, the Criollos de Caguas team in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League held their local games at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. In the past two seasons they used the Gurabo municipal stadium given the delicate condition of the Solá Morales Stadium in Caguas.
The Caguas municipal government is currently working on repairing this facility, which shows damage in the field, the roof over the seat stands, and the bathrooms, among other areas . The municipal administration aspires to have it ready in October 2020, ahead of the league’s next season. The repair work is being done with a $5 million budget using municipal funds, as the municipality told the CPI.
In addition to Yabucoa, seven other Double-A Baseball League franchises will not be able to play in their municipal stadiums during the 2020 season that begins Feb. 16. The towns facing the same challenge are Peñuelas, which plays in Guayanilla; Humacao, which plays at a smaller stadium in the town’s Candelero Arriba sector; San Lorenzo, which played in Gurabo and will move to Juncos in 2020; Hatillo, which plays in Camuy; Vega Baja, which plays in Vega Alta; Barranquitas, which plays in Aibonito; and Comerío, which plays in Aguas Buenas.
The municipal stadiums in Yauco, Sabana Grande and Guayanilla currently serve as shelters for people affected by the past month’s earthquakes.
In the past two seasons, one of the biggest challenges has been to coordinate games and training sessions in stadiums that are used by more than one team.
“It brought up the logistics of how to coordinate the games so that they don’t clash with each other. There are times when they do bump into each other and we have to move the team that’s using another stadium, to look for another one at least for that day to solve the situation. It has to be a stadium where Double-A baseball is played. This is semi-professional baseball and requires things that not all stadiums have,” said Pedro Vargas, executive director of the Puerto Rico Baseball Federation.
The logistics problem is compounded by the commercial aspect, because it complicates the sale of billboard spaces in the case of teams that don’t have their own stadium.
“That has created problems because the people of that town that’s playing in another (stadium), are not seeing the advertisement, and that’s often the complaint of the sponsors. You’re not seeing some of the billboards,” said Vargas about the problem that, he said, has caused economic losses to franchise owners.
The pitch in some stadiums is fine, but they have no lighting. This situation forces to hold the games during the day. Such is the case of the Manuel González Stadium in Salinas and the Pedro Román Stadium in Manati, to mention just two examples.
When describing the case of Los Montañeses de Utuado, when they played in Jayuya in 2018, Vargas said “the people of Utuado and other towns had trouble getting to Jayuya because of road conditions, which were not good. People complained that the double game ended at 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. So, when they went back home at night, it was dark, with landslides in some areas. It was a little uphill.”
Despite the geographical proximity, a trip between Utuado and Jayuya included, up until a few months ago, unlit roads and the absence of bridges that collapsed due to Hurricane María. Such was the case of the bridge on Ribas Dominicci Avenue on road PR-111. This structure connects the two towns and was reopened two years after its closure.
In its report “Toward a fair recovery,” the NGO Puerto Rico Legal Aid states that the right to decent housing includes “having a safe, accessible roof, with adequate access to essential services and community.”
Roberto Thomas, member of IDEBAJO and partner of Puerto Rico Legal Aid on the issue of fair recovery, believes that athletics must be seen as a fundamental activity in the promotion of these essential services and community life.
“Right now, there are young people focused and training because they have places to go and they have people in the community who are dedicated to offering those possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But we’ve been approached by young people that have told us that as long as they don’t fix the basketball court and there are no recreational activities, they ‘will be completely bored.’ In my experience, when a young person is bored, they don’t stay bored. They look for something to do,” warned Thomas.
He described the athletic and recreational activity as “a dynamic of being among young people and establishing relationships that will remain in the community in the long-run. Many of the relationships I still have are with people I played basketball with.”
Likewise, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Baseball Federation stressed the importance of sport in strengthening people’s sense of belonging to their communities and towns. For Vargas, reviving the people’s pride and the local economy were the reasons for his organization to carry out the 2018 edition of the Double-A baseball season despite the precarious state of the sports infrastructure.
“We lowered the price of the tickets so that people could go. Because we believed that despite the economic situation people were going through, people enjoy and live baseball. You have towns like Utuado, Cayey, and Juncos, which have large, long-standing franchises, and we believed the people from those towns deserved a break within the situation and that they could go to see the games. We played in parks with partial roofs, some with water problems. The players made sacrifices too,” Vargas said about the 2018 season.
Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America