Ten of the 20 towns in Puerto Rico that have received a lower percentage of the recovery funds approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had new mayors taking office in January.
The most notorious case is Vieques, which had only received 4.9% of the $51.3 million that FEMA obligated before the November 2020 elections, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) found when comparing the funds allocated with the amount of money disbursed as of that date.
In addition to the island municipality, the rest of the towns that elected new mayors and that had low percentages of FEMA money in their coffers were Culebra (7.3%), Adjuntas (9.6%), Patillas (14.8%), Arecibo (16.1%), Santa Isabel (18.3%), Lares (22.6%), Corozal (23.5%), San Lorenzo (24.1%) and Ponce (24.5%).
There is a perception that after an emergency, the person closest to the residents are the mayors. However, research shows that this is not so in all cases, especially after Hurricane María in 2017 and the earthquakes in 2020.
Since the hurricane, Vieques has been waiting for a $39 million disbursement to rebuild its Diagnostic and Treatment Center (CDT, in Spanish), as well as funds destined to rehabilitate parks, public buildings, the La Esperanza beach ramp and other infrastructure projects. New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) candidate José Corcino defeated incumbent Mayor Victor Emeric, from the Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish), by winning 51.36% of the votes registered at the State Elections Commission (CEE, in Spanish).
Emeric’s defeat did not surprise some of the residents of the island municipality, several Viequenses told the CPI.
Carmen Valencia is 76 years-old and a community leader in Vieques. For the past nine years, she has helped run health clinics to assist Viequense women receive mammograms. She agreed with the claim that the mayor did not meet expectations to handle the crisis caused by the hurricane in 2017, but she pointed to other factors that also contributed to the Viequenses demanding a change of municipal administration.
In addition to the absence of a CDT, Valencia said the instability of the ferries that connect Vieques with the island of Puerto Rico is also a sore spot. She also blamed the former mayor’s staff and members of the municipal legislature for not working toward a common goal.
“The mayor cannot be on top of everything. The municipal Legislature is supposed to convey the grievances. And if those legislators don’t do their jobs, then what are they doing there? They wanted to see him on the streets fixing this and that. His staff, whom he appointed to those positions, should have responded, because each department has a director,” Valencia said.
In the days after the hurricane, another storm was brewing between municipal legislators and the mayor. Three months after María, the Vieques Municipal Legislature asked Emeric to resign because “when Hurricane María hit, he walked away from his duties for some time,” said the former chairman of the Municipal Legislature, Gypsy Córdoba.
Córdoba, also a member of the PPD, said the impression was that Emeric did not react in time to identify supplies and assist his constituents after the storm.
Emeric, meanwhile, dismissed the criticism, although he acknowledged that this perception could have cost him the elections.
“Of course, it affected the votes. There are people who believe anything . They (the Municipal Assembly) also suspended me for almost three months, which was terrible. That’s when there were many internal problems with officials. Some even quit. When I came back I had to look for new people,” he added.
Hilda Bonilla, an agronomist for Agricultural Extension Services in Vieques, believes there was a retaliatory vote against Emeric. However, she said he was blamed for the delay in the inflow of funds, rather than the bureaucracy imposed by FEMA and the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3). COR3 is the local agency in charge of disbursing the funds that FEMA obligates after inspecting the projects that agencies, municipalities, and nonprofit organizations claim through the Public Assistance program.
“Every time you look at the hospital, which is municipal, the mayor is blamed because it’s part of his administration. We know that many promises were made, because there was a committee, and FEMA promised a lot of money to Vieques, but the people took it out on the mayor and not on FEMA, which isn’t a political party. The truth is that we’re still waiting for the funds,” said Bonilla.
Emeric said that in addition to the bureaucracy at FEMA, the procedures were complicated when COR3 came into the evaluation process to generate the disbursements, because it put up many more obstacles.
“COR3 has been a roadblock. If FEMA is bureaucratic, COR3 is worse. It’s an unnecessary entity. And it’s not my opinion, it’s also said by the people I had to hire to intervene in the procedures between Vieques and FEMA,” Emeric said.
The former official hired Avanti Technology in 2019 to provide assistance with the procedures related to the projects that were submitted to FEMA. The $12.5 million contract is valid for five years. Emeric advised the incoming mayor to keep the contract to avoid further delays of the recovery efforts. The former official said that Corcino — who was not available for an interview — supported keeping the contract.
To the North of Vieques, its sister island of Culebra also showed a pattern of holdups in recovery fund disbursements. The second island municipality had only received 7.3% of the $5.5 million in recovery funds that FEMA had obligated through November 2020. With a difference of 12 votes, Edilberto Romero (49.31%), of the PNP, claimed victory over the PPD’s William Iván Solís, who had been mayor of Culebra since 2013.
On January 13, 2021, the same day that Romero was sworn in as mayor of Culebra, Solís submitted a request to challenge the elections by claiming alleged irregularities and illegal acts in the handling of early and absentee voting in the island municipality. In the appeal filed before the San Juan Superior Court, Solís petitioned the annulment of 29 votes, which he alleges were illegally cast because they were not residents of Culebra.
“The elections in Culebra were decided not by the people of Culebra, but by non-residents who cast illegal votes, interfering in an illegitimate way with the collective will and the democratic destiny of the island municipality,” the legal document states.
Romero refuted the claim by saying that some of the votes challenged by the outgoing mayor correspond to people who left Culebra for a period of time “to take care of health situations,” but whose permanent residence is on the island municipality. He said the case is in the hands of his lawyers.
Culebra is waiting for funds to repair several municipal roads, rehabilitate the government center building and a structure that houses an elderly care center, and to pay administrative expenses, among other claims.
However, the incoming mayor told the CPI that he does not know the status of the procedures with FEMA, as he charged that the outgoing administration “disappeared or deleted” documents from all the municipality’s computers, including the one in the mayor’s office.
He said that FEMA staff have contacted him to help Culebra with the processes that they must resume so that the funds that are still pending are disbursed.
“We’re fighting so we don’t lose those funds. We’re identifying documents. They’re giving us the opportunity to submit them,” he said.
Solís did not respond to a request for an interview from the CPI.
As in Vieques and Culebra, several towns on the big island of Puerto Rico may have also given a “punishment vote” to their incumbent mayors due to the delays that are still evident after Hurricane María in 2017, community leaders and residents of several of these towns confirmed to the CPI. In other places, such as Jayuya — which in November only had 5.3% of the $188 million FEMA had obligated — incumbent Mayor José González retained the position he has held since 1997. Jayuya was also among the 16 municipalities included in the disaster declaration for the 2020 earthquakes.
“I informed the people well. I started setting up bids and hiring people. The people saw the work we were doing. I survived the elections. In the midst of the emergency, people are paying close attention to the most critical issues,” González said.
That was not the case in Patillas, located in southeastern coast of Puerto Rico, where the hurricane made landfall.
Until September of last year, María Rivas Rivera, 75, chaired the Guardaraya Unido por un Patrimonio Educativo community organization, which led efforts to collect debris and help homeless people in the neighborhood.
She acknowledges that municipal personnel were slow to arrive, but understands it was to be expected due to the level of disaster they survived. However, Rivas Rivera said this delay bothered some neighbors who demanded more action by the now former Mayor, Norberto Soto.
“We had 22 bedridden people and one was on dialysis. We’re an elderly community and we spent that time walking around and looking for water and other supplies. There are about 200 houses in Guardaraya. The government had the means, but we got around better to help in the sector. We got back up through community efforts,” said Rivas Rivera.
Claims for damages caused by Hurricane María in Patillas totaled $28.9 million. As of November, FEMA had obligated 98.6% of that claimed amount. However, COR3 had only disbursed the town a meager $4.2 million of those funds.
The outgoing mayor blames COR3 for holding back the disbursement of the money, which he said gave the impression that his administration was not working toward recovery.
“COR3 is the one that holds back the projects. That led to me being barely able to move ahead with any projects. I think that’s why I may have lost the elections. Sometimes they said the documents had to be submitted multiple times. At COR3 they had other requirements on top of the FEMA requirements, which were slow, tedious and bureaucratic,” Soto said.
Patillas is expected to use the funds to rebuild several roads and bridges, two municipal cemeteries, 13 basketball courts and recreational parks, the Los Paseos sports complex, and repair public buildings, such as the one that houses the municipal Sports and Recreation office. Soto said that refunds are pending for debris collections done during the emergency.
In Patillas, Soto lost when he got 45.42% of the votes, while his opponent from the PNP, Maritza Sánchez Neris, won with 47.56% of the votes.
“Obviously there were people unhappy with me because of the roads, the basketball courts. All of that takes a toll,” he admitted.
Soto was also affected by a statement made by the then Justice Secretary, Wanda Vázquez Garced — governor until December 2020 — who claimed in a video that spread through social networks, that there was mismanagement of supplies in Patillas after the hurricane. Although a report by the Comptroller’s Office did not find misconduct or improper handling, by Soto, the impression lingered in the minds of his constituents.
“Back then it was said that food was being thrown away. But the truth is that we had limitations to do food distribution because we did not have vehicles. The blame was unfair because we worked hard during María,” he said.
Historically, the municipalities of Ponce, in the South, and Arecibo in the North, have positioned themselves as urban centers that lead socioeconomic efforts in their regions, historian Silvia Álvarez Curberlo said. In the last decade, both municipalities had established themselves as PNP strongholds.
Álvarez Curbelo stressed that the processes of political culture and power “do not change overnight.” According to her analysis, in the case of Ponce and Arecibo, the change of mayors cannot be reduced only to low percentages of recovery fund allocations, because when mayors remain in their positions for a long time, they can gain strength or wear out from the accumulated performance of their administration.
She also ruled out that the changes responded to the lack of citizen interest in the elections. In fact, according to data from the CEE, electoral participation in 2020 did not drop significantly if the data is compared with the participation in 2016. When reviewing the percentages of electoral participation, there was a decrease of only 0.43% in 2020 compared to 2016.
José Marrero is a doctor in a private clinic in Arecibo. Every Wednesday, he joins other volunteers to deliver medical assistance and food to the homeless on the streets of Arecibo. “The homeless call us ‘angels of the night’,” he said.
Arecibo’s books have been in red for years and several businesses have closed, he said, so there are many abandoned locations. This situation worsened after Hurricane María. As of November 2020, Arecibo had reported $31.4 million in losses. As of that date, FEMA had obligated $19 million for the municipality, of which COR3 had only disbursed $3 million.
Carlos Molina, of the PNP, had been in control of the mayor’s office since 2013. However, in last year’s elections, Molina lost his position to Carlos Rodríguez Irrizary, who got 61.23% of the votes in Arecibo.
“It took us by surprise,” said Marrero. He heard testimonies from homeless people he serves who complained that they were not getting aid or food after the hurricane. “They didn’t even have enough water to drink, because they couldn’t find any place that was open,” he said.
Arecibo is waiting for recovery funds to rehabilitate roads, bridges, three baseball parks, three basketball courts, the Trina Padilla house, the Oliver Theater, the tsunami alarm system and the road and wall that protect Víctor Rojas Avenue from the impact of the ocean, among other projects.
However, for Marrero, one of the most urgent aspects is cleaning the sewers throughout the urban center. In October of last year, the doctor said, there were heavy rains that flooded several sectors of Arecibo.
“Those rains showed that it’s urgent that they clean the sewers and do dredging or cleaning work on the Arecibo River. We’re definitely not prepared to get hit even by a hurricane weaker than María,” Marrero said.
FEMA obligated $3,633,724 for four sewer cleaning projects under the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA).
Nathalia Colón, assistant director of communications for PRASA’s northern region, said a 42-inch-diameter sanitary pipe is being rebuilt in La Puntilla in Arecibo, at a $2,120,400 investment.
The CPI sought a reaction from Molina, but he declined to comment.
“I’m not going to comment on anything about the municipality. I’d rather give the incoming mayor his space. I won’t make any further statements about Arecibo,” he said, despite the fact that the questions were centered on facts related to his responsibility in the mayor’s office.
Melina Aguilar Colón is a tour guide in Ponce and owner of the Isla Caribe operation.
The businesswoman said Ponce had several years of pent-up frustration over how PNP Mayor María Meléndez Altieri was running the municipality. Although Meléndez Altieri managed to stay on as mayor for 12 years, Aguilar Colón said her performance after the hurricane, the 2020 earthquakes and the pandemic that the island still faces due to COVID-19 prompted more people to want to remove her from the job.
Mélendez Alttieri obtained 26.87% of the votes, compared to the 61.77% that Luis Irizarry Pabón, from the PPD, received.
“Before the earthquakes and the pandemic, I wasn’t so sure that the mayor was going to lose. But after all that, people hit their highest level of frustration. Hundreds of people had to leave their homes to sleep on the streets. The scandal of the hidden supply warehouses also weighed heavily. The municipality said it didn’t know, but it’s impossible that they didn’t know about that,” said the businesswoman in reference to a complaint that citizens made in March 2020 when they came across warehouses located in the town’s La Guancha sector, where they found supplies and food that should have been distributed after Hurricane María made landfall three years earlier.
“The discovery of those supplies was an important event. Ponce was very affected by the earthquakes. That political embarrassment negatively affected the mayor. In 2020, the mayor and her team were practically invisible. I pass through the urban area every day and since María, the municipality has practically disappeared. That changed the opinions of many, including people from the PNP and pro-statehood voters,” said Aguilar Colón.
In an interview with the CPI, Mélendez Alttieri insisted that neither she nor her planning director were aware of the existence of that warehouse.
The former mayor also rejected the complaint that she was not active after the 2017 hurricane and the 2020 earthquakes.
“The people did not understand the emergency. The people saw me as if I had been the disaster. They blamed the disaster on me. But I never stopped working. I would go to the rural areas and my team stayed behind helping in the urban area,” said Meléndez Altieri.
Ponce claimed losses from FEMA amounting to $74.4 million. However, as of November 2020, the federal agency had obligated $50.2 million, of which COR3 had disbursed only $12.3 million.
Among the projects on standby for the full disbursement of the recovery funds are road repairs, fixing buildings housing the mayor’s office, the municipal Transportation Department, the Enrique A. Vicéns Recreational and Cultural Complex, La Guancha, the Port of Ponce’s security fence, the Juan Pachín Vicéns Auditorium, the La Perla Theater, the Indigenous Ceremonial Center, the Francisco “Paquito” Montaner Stadium, the Víctor Vasallo Aquatic Complex, the Julio Enrique Monagas Park, among other public facilities.
To handle FEMA claims and bidding requirements, the Meléndez Altieri administration created an Office of Engineering.
The incoming mayor eliminated this office because “it does very little work related to the duties that it should be performing.”
“So much so that the technical engineering staff is minimal, while the Office is full of administrative staff. These tasks were outsourced to two consulting firms (ALC Legal Services Group and CIPM, the company owned by Engineer Carlos Pequera, ex candidate for governor for the PNP) which have the information and do the work on damages from Hurricane María and the earthquakes,” according to the Transition Report prepared by Mayor Irizarry’s team.
Instead, the incoming mayor created the Construction Office, which Heidi Dilán will lead and to where the 13 employees who were in the office that the previous administration had set up have moved.
“The municipality had no control of the projects that were being worked on with FEMA and COR3. They depended on a few contractors; the municipality did not supervise,” said Irizarry.
Meléndez Altieri blasted the changes that the new mayor has done to handle recovery procedures because she believes it could delay the procedures already underway.
Despite criticism from mayors who charged that they got a “punishment vote” because of the slow delivery of recovery funds from FEMA and COR3, the federal agency rejected that its efforts in Puerto Rico influenced last November’s elections.
José Baquero, federal recovery coordinator at FEMA, said the agency must comply with Stafford Act guidelines and other laws whose requirements must not be affected by any electoral process.
“FEMA’s authority to disburse funds for disasters does not invoke, permit or contemplate the electoral results of any local, state or federal government, nor the reputation of these organizations or of their elected leaders,” Baquero stated in writing.
Funds were assigned last year to more than 4,900 projects, of which 3,896 corresponded to municipal projects, he said.
However, he said it is the responsibility of any sub-recipient — such as municipalities — to provide plans and documentation that show eligibility before receiving any reimbursement of funds under the Public Assistance program.
He recalled that along with FEMA, other federal agencies mediate in Puerto Rico’s recovery process, such as the Housing, Labor, Health and Human Services Departments, as well as the Environmental Protection and Small Business Administration agencies, among others.
Meanwhile, Manuel Laboy, who succeeded Ottmar Chávez as executive director of COR3 as of January, told the CPI that he would soon be promoting changes in the agency’s policy to speed up processes and expedite the disbursements of FEMA-obligated funds.
Of the 16 municipalities that experienced the most damage from the earthquakes of late 2019 and early 2020, 11 had changes at the mayor’s office in January. Although the municipality of Guánica, which was led by the PNP, is among the towns that will have a new mayor, there is still a conflict between the independent candidate Edgardo Cruz Vélez and the candidate for the PPD, Ismael Rodríguez Ramos.
For Jennifer Santos Hernández, an expert sociologist in disasters, the changes at the mayor’s office in the towns most affected by the earthquakes in Puerto Rico show how citizens retaliated against certain mayors for the way they reacted when handling the earthquake-related crisis.
“I was working in the field after the earthquakes. In Ponce, for example, they may have had some challenges in the response process — such as the discovery of warehouses with supplies — but there were also challenges in the delivery of services after the emergency. There were victims who were moved from one place to another in the same night, with all the distress that this type of action represents in a crisis,” she said.
During the time she spent in the South — where the ravages were felt much more — Santos Hernández documented testimonies and complaints from people about the logistics of the government agencies in charge of handling the emergency.
“There were a lot of rules in the shelters. They were not necessarily issues related to the mayors, because the Department of Housing runs these shelters, but the person doesn’t necessarily understand the government bureaucracy,” she added.
While southern Puerto Rico had been shaking since December 2019, on January 6, 2020, a 5.8 magnitude quake began putting residents of the area on greater alert. Early the next day, another earthquake, this time of magnitude 6.4, shook Puerto Rico at about 4:24 a.m.
Antonio Sierra is an artist from Yauco and a resident of Calle Clausell, in Ponce. Sierra, along with other neighbors, noticed the lack of assistance from some mayors when it came to helping everyone affected by the earthquakes. Houses had collapsed and some were on the verge of toppling over, the painter recalled. So, he helped put together a roster of community leaders from neighborhoods in the towns of Ponce, Peñuelas and Yauco to assist with supplies delivered by individuals, nonprofit organizations and the private sector.
“People didn’t want to take supplies to municipal governments because they were getting lost. Many of the people who came to the South to help wanted to deliver supplies to homes, where they were needed. For this reason, many community leaders didn’t want to get involved with mayors,” he said.
He said people saw a better organization in the community work and rejected the controversies associated with the government’s handling of the earthquakes-related crisis.
“What has propped the municipalities up after María, and the earthquakes has been the people themselves. The recovery has been strong, but people are getting back on their feet on their own, because the government is still the same or worse, since the services they offer have been cut,” he acknowledged.
Sierra believes this scenario prompted citizens to “take it out” on the mayors at the polls.
“I think the lack of response took its toll on them. People expressed themselves there. I think that the non-response that was seen from the municipal administrators weighed heavily in Ponce and Guayanilla. When they did something well, it was applauded, but when nothing was done — which is what happened — it took a toll,” he said.
This neglect by southern government authorities has been criticized by several social organizations, including the Jornada Se Acabaron las Promesas collective, which pointed out that, more than a year after the earthquakes, dozens of communities still remain in a state of emergency in southern municipalities.
“The critical and inhumane circumstances that hundreds of people are still experiencing exacerbate conditions of gender and intra-family violence, worsen the psychological conditions of the family nucleus and the neighborhood environment, health conditions and contagion, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the organization said in a statement calling for a caravan of vehicles in the southern towns on January 30.
Jorge Schmidt, professor of Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez Campus (known as RUM in Spanish), said it’s not possible to generalize what happened after the earthquakes in each municipality, since each one bears historical particularities in their municipal politics that come together with the most recent events.
However, he agreed that these traumatic events, such as earthquakes or a hurricane, stay with people who seek answers from their leaders. For the analyst, although these mayors did not have full responsibility for the delay in the delivery of supplies or for receiving funds for mitigation and eventual recovery, the truth is that people endorse or reject the closest leader, in this case, the municipal administrations.
“The changes of mayors also respond to unfulfilled expectations. Since María, they announced practically on a weekly basis that a certain amount of funds would arrive. People possibly thought that they would notice a difference with all that money, that jobs would be created and that they would recover faster. But this didn’t happen,” he explained.
“At this point, people don’t want any more excuses. In fact, if these practices of overpromising are not corrected, it’s something that can affect those who won this year  in the 2024 elections,” the RUM professor warned.
Meanwhile, Sociologist Santos Hernández said the problem is not necessarily due to the funds that have been slow to reach the coffers of the towns affected by the earthquakes, but to the infrastructure works that have yet to get started.
People respond more to what they can see and not to abstract things like the amounts and percentages of funds, she said.
The expert agreed that the backlog of funds adds to a whole context of pent-up inefficiencies in these municipalities affected by the hurricanes and earthquakes that lead to distrust in government institutions.
“The disaster, in addition to being natural, is social and doesn’t happen on a specific date, but has been in the making for years. The disaster reveals, as if it were a photo, all the flaws that the towns have. You have to look at the accumulated situations that complicated the outcome of that disaster,” said Santos Hernández.
Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez is a member of Report for America.