Three years haven’t been long enough to get project approvals and for the bigger recovery work to begin that would address the main water-related issues that people had after Hurricane María.

Photo by Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Portable pumps at the La Malaria pumping station in Cataño, Puerto Rico.

In the Cubuy neighborhood in Canóvanas, having a cistern — sometimes two, or even three — is indispensable to deal with the unpredictability of the potable water service. When there is no such option, you have to resort to gallons, buckets or containers to store the liquid.

Madeline Negrón, 48, a resident of the Eva Flores sector of this neighborhood, is witness to that, and she says it doesn’t take a hurricane, storm or a drought for the pipes to be empty for up to three days straight. When Hurricane María struck in 2017, the roughly 10 residents who live in this area had to wait several weeks before water service was restored.

The situation is much worse in times of droughts, since Cubuy and other neighborhoods in Canóvanas are among the first sectors to get rationed when the levels of the Carraízo reservoir — located in Trujillo Alto — drop.

The reservoir, which the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) operates, was the hardest-hit due to the sediments carried by runoff during the hurricane three years ago, according to an analysis the public corporation did and that was confirmed through a bathymetry study.

Photo by Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Cisterns in the Cubuy neighborhood in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico

It’s also one of the water reserves that is expected to be dredged with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Public Assistance program. The same is planned for La Plata and Cidra reservoirs, using FEMA funds.

But three years after Hurricane María hit, these proposals are on the list of broad impact, critical infrastructure projects that the government of Puerto Rico is claiming from the federal government, but which are only just under FEMA’s consideration to decide how much money it will allocate.

In other words, it could take between two and three more years before sediment extraction begins in Carraízo, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) confirmed in an interview with PRASA, and after analyzing the evaluation processes in the pipeline for these projects. A similar situation could occur with critical infrastructure projects for energy and flood control, among others.

During a visit to the Cubuy neighborhood, Negrón said water was out for two days the prior week, so she turned to her cistern, and when it runs dry, she’s forced to fetch water in “buckets and gallons” at her mother’s house, which is 25 minutes away.

“The biggest drawback is not having water to wash or cook. Although, we always find some to bathe,” she clarified.

Although PRASA initially claimed these projects individually, the public corporation later consolidated all of its claims for permanent works under FEMA’s Public Assistance program through a single docket through the Advanced Awards Strategy Initiative (FAAST).

The Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) will take similar action, seeking funds to rebuild pumping stations in flood-prone sectors in San Juan, Guaynabo and Cataño.

Both projects are still pending approval from the federal agency, so they do not have a projected date for funding obligations, said FEMA’s External Affairs Officer in Puerto Rico, Juan Andrés Muñoz.

The water storage problem in PRASA’s critical reservoirs will take time to fix

Lunessa Cruz and Jomar González live in the Los González sector of the Cubuy neighborhood in Canóvanas with their four children. Water service is unstable in this area, they explained. Sometimes some houses have water service and others don’t. Lunessa and Jomar live on the first floor of a two-story house. They do not have a cistern to store water.

When the municipality or PRASA gives advance notice that there will be an interruption, the family stores water in buckets and gallons. If several days go by, the municipality parks tanker trucks at points in the Cubuy neighborhood and they go there to get their fill.

According to a PRASA analysis, the Carraízo reservoir — which provides water to several sectors of Canóvanas — has lost 45% of its original capacity when it was built in 1953. The last time this reservoir was dredged was in 1994, when Puerto Rico experienced a protracted drought. The dredging project concluded in 1998. When Hurricane María struck in 2017, it caused an additional 12.5% loss of capacity at the reservoir, according to an analysis hydrologist Ferdinand Quiñones did for PRASA.

Although PRASA asked FEMA for money to dredge Carraízo, the public corporation has not yet decided whether this sediment removal will be done throughout the reservoir or in specific areas. They don’t know either how the dredging will be done for the rest of the reservoirs for which the agency requested recovery funds.

However, on October 26, PRASA began cleaning the surface of the Carraízo reservoir to control the growth of vegetative material, after awarding a four-year, $1 million contract to Caribbean Composting Inc.

Engineer José Rivera Sanabria, executive director of Infrastructure at PRASA, explained that the agency will contract four companies for design and engineering analysis as part of PRASA’s capital improvement plan, including recovery projects. These contracts will be awarded to Black and Veatch Puerto Rico PSC, Arcadis Caribe PSC, CH Caribe Engineers PSC, CSA and Louis Berger JV, LLC, Rivera Sanabria said. This month, PRASA signed a contract with Black and Veatch Puerto Rico for $9,020,786, which will be in effect through June 30, 2021.

The official did not want to reveal how much the rest of the contracting will amount to, because he said he prefers to wait for all the agreements to be signed to get the final total.

He said one of the first tasks the firms will get is to identify the most viable options to correct the low storage capacity in these reservoirs.

“There are currently several alternatives to control sediment flow from other activities that can help not only to remove them now, but also to prevent them from returning to the reservoir when it rains. All of these things must be analyzed to ensure the investment and that the money is well spent,” said Rivera Sanabria.

But, why then were those projects developed, for which $700 million is being sought from FEMA, specifically to dredge the three reservoirs? the CPI asked.

“Don’t get carried away by those numbers, because they were very preliminary,” Rivera Sanabria said, referring to the data that currently appears on the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency’s (known as COR3) Grant Portal platform.

“This information is a working document that doesn’t necessarily represent the reality of the eligibility determination or project formulation process per se,” he said.

He explained that FEMA created groups of projects to have all the inventory within the COR3 Grant Portal system. According to the official, PRASA claimed damages for all of its 4,000 assets, although they had not confirmed whether Hurricane María had really affected all of them.

He further noted, however, that PRASA will not necessarily prompt an evaluation of all claims. In other words, he acknowledged that the public corporation submitted projects to FEMA that may not be obligated funding.

“In 2018, when we submitted the list of damages to FEMA, which is a requirement within the process, all of PRASA’s assets were listed, which are like 4,000, excluding the pipes. A list of all assets was provided, because, obviously, damage had to be reported to be eligible for a funding allocation later. The truth is that, given the time we had, it became tough to determine what the damages were. But, since Hurricane María was so devastating, it was accurate to say that everything had been damaged,” he explained.

The CPI questioned Rivera Sanabria on why, two years later, projects that won’t be evaluated or won’t receive funds are still in the system, creating a wrong impression about the money and the number of recovery projects that PRASA is expected to have.

The official explained that as long as FEMA does not approve and obligate funds to the consolidated project through the FAAST program, individual projects “will remain in the system.”

Meanwhile, Ricardo Agosto Castro, FEMA’s deputy director of external affairs, did not specify when or how much the obligation would be for these water infrastructure projects.

Does PRASA have a specific date or projection of when these projects, such as dredging, will begin, either with FEMA funds or internally? the CPI asked Rivera Sanabria.

“First you have to analyze the alternatives and start the permission processes. That should take six to eight months. They’re complicated engineering processes. Obviously, the permission part, depending on the option chosen, may be more or less complex. If the alternative is very complicated, or if it has a greater environmental impact, perhaps the environmental permission process will be more extensive than it would for a simpler action,” the PRASA official said.

Water control pumps: a long-haul problem

Juan Rivera, who asked that his real identity be protected, explained that Amparo Street in the Juana Matos neighborhood in Cataño is the first to flood when the water from the Las Cucharillas marsh overflows. This, because gravity pulls the water to the area that the neighbors call “El Hoyo (The Pit).”

The marsh, which spans 1,272 acres between Cataño, Guaynabo, Toa Baja and Bayamón, receives runoff from nearby municipalities, industrial areas in Cataño and other neighboring zones. Juan said that the street where he lives with his wife is the last to dry up for the same reasons that water accumulates in the first place.

When the pumps are turned on at the La Malaria station in Cataño, the water on Amparo Street dries up completely in three to five days, Juan explained. If they don’t turn them on, it can take up to two weeks, leaving small pockets of water in the area. He said that when it rains steadily, even over the mountain towns, he has to move his car outside the community to keep it from getting under water.

When the street floods, they are assisted out by a makeshift boat that Juan made from an old jet ski. During María, this family had water up to their chests. It took 17 days after that event for the water that collected on the street to completely drain out. The standing water begins to stink as days go by , the Cataño resident lamented.

Three kilometers from Juan’s home, Lourdes Pont points to the ocean, remembering how the salty water covered Laguna Street and some of its homes during the hurricane. Steps from her house is the Bay View pumping station in Cataño. Although it has been more than three years since her neighborhood experienced a flood like the one caused by the 2017 storm, Pont says she and other neighbors have contacted the DNER to clear the path behind their residences, which provides access to the pumping station.

The path is full of weeds, animals and debris. The Cataño resident fears that the collected material will interfere with the flow of water. So, when the DNER does not respond to their requests, the neighbors themselves clean a part of the area that is not restricted.

In 2017, Cataño Mayor Félix Delgado, signed a co-administration agreement with the DNER, which was then headed by Tania Vázquez, for the 11 flood control pumping stations in his municipality. The former DNER official resigned after it was revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is probing alleged irregularities related to contracts the agency awarded for upkeep of flood control pumps to companies close to the superintendent of the Capitol, José Jerón Muñiz Lasalle.

“We saw that the DNER had no staff. We have an Emergency Management office, and we have personnel trained to look after the pumps. One of the big problems with these pumps is that they weren’t turned on in time, which is why Cataño was constantly flooded. When we assigned personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we had had people there constantly to turn on those pumps when it rained or there were flood warnings,” the mayor explained.

That agreement ended in May of 2020, but Delgado said he is evaluating the possibility of an extension. His main interest is for the DNER to transfer the full administration of these pumping stations to him, which would also entail transferring the budget allocated from the government’s coffers for the upkeep of these structures to his municipality. The transfer that Delgado is pursuing would also mean redirecting recovery funds that FEMA obligates to develop the pumping stations. Delgado presented that proposal to the former DNER secretary, who ignored the request.

“Unfortunately, there was no interest. That would be a recommendation that I would make to the central government: that they transfer those funds from the central government to the municipalities, and that the municipalities, which are the ones that are affected, are given the responsibility for the pumps, the money for the pumping stations, and we co-manage them as we have done all this time,” he said.

The current secretary told the CPI that he had not received any formal proposal from Cataño to fully transfer the management of the pumping stations to the municipality.

“I don’t remember that [Félix Delgado] made [the approach], and if he had, I would have sat down with the mayor to evaluate it, because I don’t think it’s an unreasonable and impulsive request,” Machargo said.

The DNER currently manages 14 pumping stations in the municipalities of San Juan, Cataño, Guaynabo, Arecibo, Juana Díaz and Salinas.

Delgado accepted that he is aware of the residents’ complaint about the floods, especially the residents of the Juana Matos community. He told the CPI that one of his long-term proposals is to draw on funds from the Community Development Block Grant Program for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) to relocate about 44 families from this sector to other areas in Cataño, demolish the structures and add that space to the La Ciénaga Las Cucharillas natural reserve. Delgado said that project requires between $8 to $10 millions to execute.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awards CDBG-DR funds, which are administered by the local Department of Housing. This program currently has $20.2 billion allocated, of which Puerto Rico is only authorized to use 16%, that is, $3.2 billion. Of that available money, the government had only used 2% at the end of fiscal year 2020.

Has the possibility of relocation been presented to those 44 families? the CPI asked Delgado.

“Yes, we’ve talked about it. [But], CDBG-DR funds have been a headache for everyone. Yes, I’ve already gone through the community explaining what I want to do, but until I have that in hand, I don’t want to sit with the people, because they will later say: ‘El Cano (Delgado) promised and didn’t deliver.’ I want to have all the resources. But, until they guarantee that I will have X amount of money for this, I don’t think it’s wise to give them false expectations,” the mayor said.

Where will these families be relocated?

“I would give them different options, the Las Vegas urbanization, for example, or different neighborhoods in the Cataño area of their choosing, because what’s important here isn’t to place them where the municipality wants, because that will be their new home, but a house in Cataño for $80,000 or $90,000, would be OK,” he said.

Several residents of this community confirmed to the CPI that, although they have heard of the possibility of families relocating to other areas of Cataño, the mayor has not outlined the proposal directly to them. It already has votes in favor and others against in the Juana Matos community.

Félix Solís, 52, lives on Calle Nueva in this community. He has not heard of the project to move people to other parts of town. He lives in a two-story house painted light yellow. Also on the lot is his 80-year-old uncle’s house, a larger structure painted white and pale orange. He said when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, the area was under six feet of water.

When several residents are asked, they all make the same gesture of placing their hand on their chest to explain how high the flood reached. Solis said he would not like to move from where he lives but would prefer that the sewer system be fixed to prevent the floods from getting worse.

“If they build a better sewerage system, I can stay [in the Juana Matos community]. We know everybody here and we’re happy,” he said.

For his part, Lino Almonte, 74, said the possibility of moving to a better place that does not have flooding issues “would be a hit.” Almonte has lived on Amparo Street since 1987. He confirmed that this street is constantly flooded, although he said the flood control pumps have mitigated the situation “somewhat.”

Photo by Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Lino Almonte

“When it rains here everyone has to move their cars out [of the community],” he said. In his case, he said he has been “raising” part of his lot with fillers and concrete to try to keep water from reaching his property.

Latent fear of more floods in San Juan

A situation like Cataño’s is also experienced by the nearly 150,000 residents of the Playita, Shanghai, Ocean Park, Santa Teresita, Luis Llorens Torres public housing complex, Villa Palmeras, Punta Las Marías, and the Machuchal communities in San Juan and some sectors in Isla Verde in Carolina. These sectors depend on a flood control pumping station located on Baldorioty de Castro Ave.’s marginal road at the mouth of the Los Corozos lagoon, adjacent to the San Juan-Carolina city limit.

Ocean Park community leader Alfredo Coyard explained that these flood control pumping stations fill a need for an area where storm and sewer infrastructure was not developed in line with the addition of homes, buildings, hotels and commercial spaces that have grown in the last 40 years.

“This whole area was mangrove, where developers saw a potential to exploit the coastal areas and filled them in in the 1950s. The sewage system that was developed was for family units. However, the area eventually grew as a tourist and beach area and became what it is today. What we know as Condado, was developed and became a high-interest area. They began to build more properties and condos. All of that with a sewer and storm drain system that was created for a 1950s development,” Coyard recalled.

Photo by Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Alfredo Coyard

Hurricane María in 2017 put residents under water, caused significant losses to their homes and cut off access for them for several days. Before María hit, three of the nine flood control pumps in that pumping house were out of service. The other six did not work due to the collapse of the electrical system and the lack of alternative equipment to supply them with energy, Omayra Ríos, a community leader from the Shanghai community, said.

“That didn’t work during María, because, remember, the power went out, and that didn’t turn on. Three years later, now there’s a lot of money [for recovery] but we’re still in the same place,” Ríos said.

The DNER has a contract with Tetrad Enterprises for the rental of portable flood control pumps for Cataño and San Juan. This contract also covers the municipalities of Salinas and Juana Díaz, Machargo confirmed to the CPI. So far, the DNER has spent $26 million on this contract, which also includes payment for diesel to keep this equipment running.

According to the Office of the Comptroller’s Contract Registry, the agreement between DNER and Tetrad Enterprises became effective on March 26 of this year and ran through September 30, when FEMA’s approved project worksheet (PW) ended. However, in visits to communities that use these pumping stations and after interviews with government officials, the CPI confirmed that the company is currently still overseeing the operation of this infrastructure.

FEMA initially obligated $24 million to install these portable flood control pumps. However, that amount may increase as the final documentation that the DNER submits complies with the federal agency’s Public Assistance Program Guidelines, FEMA said.

In a subsequent interview with Machargo, he said that on November 2, FEMA approved an extension of the DNER’s pumping stations’ PW until December 31, 2020. The DNER’s contract with Tetrad Enterprises was also extended until the last day of 2020.

“It would be for the same amount, the same monthly fee as the previous contract. This contract has an equipment rental fee and has a line item for fuel consumption. When the rental fee and the fuel costs are combined, the average has been about $2 million a month,” Machargo said of the amount that Tetrad Enterprises will receive until December 31 and that would be added to the $26 million that running the portable pumps has cost so far.

Ríos questioned why that money that has been earmarked for rent has not been used to move forward on repairing the permanent pumps.

“They haven’t been clear about the funds and where they are. What’s the course of action? These types of projects always have a plan A or B. But apparently the government cannot work like that. They have to do studies and after conducting the study, then they’ll see what they’ll do,” Coyard said.

DNER dragging its feet in claiming FEMA funds for flood control

The DNER’s acting secretary justified the contract with Tetrad Enterprise by stating that these communities cannot be deprived of this service during rainy seasons that could flood the area again.

He agreed that repairing permanent pumps will take longer due to the entire process involved in applying for recovery funds from FEMA. As with PRASA, the DNER will redesign the projects for the flood control pumping stations that had been claimed individually to consolidate them in a single project.

In San Juan, the projects to be consolidated include the pumping station on the Baldorioty de Castro marginal road, the one on José De Diego Ave. (Stop 22 in Santurce), and the one on Stop 18 in Santurce, the official explained. In the case of the project related to the Guaynabo and Cataño pumping stations, the structures located in the San Fernando, La Malaria, Bay View, Sabana, and one near the public residential Juana Matos sectors, were brought together in a single proposal.

The agency expects to present this consolidation plan for similar projects to FEMA in early December, coupled with a hydrological and hydraulic (HH) study to determine the amount of water handled by these pumping stations and move on to the design stage from there.

“A request for proposals for hydrological and hydraulic studies of the hydrographic basins where these pumping stations are located was released in October. These projects date back to the 1950s and 1960s, and since then, the population has grown, and more land has been flood sealed. That has to be identified by engineering professionals specialized in hydrology,” he explained. Typically, these types of studies take about 90 days to complete, Marchargo said.

Area community leaders expressed their uneasiness with this arrangement as it would mean spending money on rented pumps for a longer stretch, and at the same time, it causes uncertainty of new emergencies if the communities’ streets flood again.

“[The need for a hydrological and hydraulic (HH) study] has been mentioned since the last hearing at COR3, which was in January [2020], long before COVID-19. So, you’re telling me that with so many environmentalists and experts on this island, isn’t there an HH done already? I can’t believe that. There’s some kind of deal here that’s benefiting someone with that rent, which could be the same company that rents them,” Ríos said.

Coyard added that this contract is subject to the government’s compliance with the contractual clauses established with Tetrad Enterprises. Coyard said, for example, that in July of this year, when the Isaías storm hit Puerto Rico, he spoke with the owner of Tetrad, Luis Hernández, who refused to turn on the portable pumps because the DNER was late “several months” in rent, he said.

“You become a hostage. During the recent storm (Isaías) the owner of the pumps didn’t want to turn them on because they owed him money. That day I was calling Eddie Charbonier [legislator] and Rafael Machargo [DNER secretary]. I told them: ‘what kind of contractor do you have there, who because you haven’t paid him, I’m going to have flooding again.’ They told me that that wasn’t possible. But that’s what the contractor told me, that since he hadn’t been paid, he wasn’t going to turn on the machines,” he said. After 12 hours, Hernández agreed to turn on the pumps, Coyard noted.

In addition to the contract with the DNER, Tetrad Enterprises has a contract with the municipality of Comerío to maintain and operate the Salto Uno and Salto Dos dams until 2057 at a rate of $50,000 per year. The company has also had contracts related to electrical installations with the Puerto Rico School of Fine Arts and Design in Old San Juan.

The CPI sought a reaction from Tetrad Enterprises on this matter and more details about the contracts, but the company was not available for an interview.

Currently there are a total of five permanent work projects related to the DNER Flood Control Stations, according to the information that FEMA provided to the CPI. Aside from the consolidated projects related to the San Juan, Cataño and Guaynabo pumping stations, the other projects related to this type of flood control stations are located in the southern region in Salinas and Juana Díaz, according to a document that the DNER disclosed. FEMA and DNER have not yet reached an agreement on the description and scope of damage in four of these five permanent works projects, according to data from the federal agency.

Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez and Rafael R. Díaz Torres are members of Report for America.

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