Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to talk in this Public Briefing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Civil Rights Implications of Disaster Relief: Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. I hope that this becomes a productive forum in which we are not only heard, but that can be linked to solutions to the problems and injustices that are brought to your attention.
My name is Carla Minet, and I am the executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalism (Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, or CPI in Spanish).
The CPI is a nonprofit news organization celebrating 15 years of doing incisive investigative journalism, training journalists in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and litigating for access to public records. We have a team of five journalists that has been devoted permanently for the past four years to investigating the recovery process after hurricanes Irma and María.
Given the time limits and that our reporting for the past four years is available on the internet and accounts for many civil rights violations, I will focus today on very specific backstage events that may give you an insight into the challenges we have faced as journalists while investigating the recovery process that show the systemic problems we face given our colonial relationship with the US.
In June 2020, the Health Department of Puerto Rico said to the CPI it handed over to the local Emergency Management agency information about the number of electricity-dependent people in each municipality that comes from the federal database called emPOWER Map, so that it was given to the mayors.
But the information shared did not include the names of the patients or their addresses, because allegedly, this information should be handed after the disaster, because of an MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) to protect private information, Health Department said to CPI. This is a huge contradiction with the logic of preparedness and anticipating tragedies and deaths, and like all protocols suggest, moving people that are dependent on electricity before a Category 5 hurricane hits.
In trying to understand how this information was gathered by federal emPOWER Map program, CPI journalist Eliván Martínez submitted a Freedom of Information request to HHS on June 25, 2021, including:
- Emails and letters in which the emPower Program communicated to officials of the Government of Puerto Rico regarding the emPower map platform
- Dates of training events and the names of the Puerto Rican public officials participants
- Dates in which the emPower team supported the Puerto Rico Department of Health with situational awareness and IT tools to identify electricity-dependent populations.
- Action Reports and their corrective action improvement plans for the program in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands since January 2017 up to the production date.
HHS denied our request for expedited processing, even though we are a press entity and qualified, and we were in the middle of the hurricane season, which established the urgency. And until now, HHS has not handed the information we requested, violating all the due process that is supposedly guaranteed by FOIA.
In a separate effort, we filed another FOIA request to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), dated February 26, 2021. We had interviewed several FEMA employees at the Puerto Rico recovery office that had presented complaints regarding work harassment, and said that nothing happened with their superiors. In the FOIA we were seeking all available disaggregated data presented in the quarterly public report on complaints, notifications against labor discrimination in FEMA, for the years 2015 through 2021, including the data on the origin of these complaints broken down by FEMA region, state and territory. The information request was denied, because “No responsive data was located. OER does not track complaints this way and, therefore, does not maintain such records responsive to your request”.
But, a few months later, an audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General analyzed 305 complaints about sexual harassment by evaluating 7,000 internal FEMA documents dated between 2012 and 2018. It found that FEMA did not always adequately report and investigate internal allegations of sexual misconduct — including sexual assault, unwelcome sexual advances, and sexual comments — at its operations in the United States and its territories. The information they used for this audit is exactly the kind of information we asked for.
We persisted and filed in October another FOIA requesting a breakdown of the places of origin of the 305 complaints that they identified in the 2021 OIG audit. Still no response.
In Puerto Rico, we have a constitutional right of access to information. Even though it is far from being perfect, CPI goes to court to file these kinds of petitions I just described and we usually get the information within weeks or months. In my view and experience, the problems of getting information through FOIA are a real and constant obstacle to our accountability reporting regarding the recovery process. I’ve been to conferences and workshops about FOIA and I don’t hear these stories from US mainland journalists.
On another matter, there are many hours that we invest to gather the information and track the recovery funds assigned by the federal government. The absence of a single, centralized and updated place is just one of the main difficulties. The sources are dispersed and collect the data in different ways, even for the same periods of time, generating mistrust and confusion.
On many occasions, the databases of the FEMA are more up-to-date than those of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience of Puerto Rico (COR3). But the COR3 portal offers certain data that FEMA omits, such as the amount spent on each project. The COR3 also shows the names of the contractors, although it suppresses them when the file is downloaded in Excel format.
Although COR3 shows the recovery funds allocated by 18 other federal agencies, it does not indicate which entities of the Government of Puerto Rico have received them. For HUD mitigation and disaster recovery funds, known as CDBG-DR and CDBG-MIT, use the HudExchange pdf reports. Likewise, the details of the fund items do not always coincide.
The website of the Recovery Support Function Leadership Group, which links several federal agencies, displays the amounts that have been allocated, committed and disbursed. Their data does not match what COR3 shows. Also, some tools do not work and the data that is downloaded for certain categories is months out of date.
Last, but not least important, as you might know, for the first time, FEMA has applied to an entire jurisdiction, Puerto Rico, a provision of the Stafford Act on Disaster and Emergency Assistance that was included as an amendment after Hurricane Sandy in 2013. Since then, it had only been applied to develop 258 projects in 28 states. It was imposed on Puerto Rico government officials by the Trump administration, as our reporter Cristina del Mar Quiles revealed a few months ago. Section 428 allows reconstruction in a stronger and more resilient manner. But Section 428 states that if costs increase after estimates are approved, municipal governments are responsible for the extra expenses incurred. In those cases, FEMA will not disburse additional funds. This has become a huge bump in the road, as some mayors have confirmed to CPI.
We have reported extensively about the problems with this experiment of Section 428, but still, the roadmap for the recovery process lacks clarity and transparency. The same happens with part of the money for the electric grid, which we still don’t know exactly how it will be allocated.
Vieques is another case in which the recovery process shows the worst of the bureaucracy and lack of coordination and imposition of federal decisions that are not justified. First, they cut the original amount estimated for the health facility, then, they decided that it would not be a hospital, but just a health center. A contractor for this facility said about the process that the work dynamic between FEMA and COR3 is the main obstacle to moving forward. “What’s happening here is that the entire program, all policies and procedures, are developed between FEMA and COR3 and there’s no participation of the sub-recipients,” he said.
Our requests for interviews to agencies like FEMA and HHS take weeks or more to be granted, if they actually granted it, or we get generic and unclear responses when we inquire about these issues.
This is not a Wailing Wall. It is a brief selection of the challenges we have faced during our accountability reporting in the past years, and shows, in my view, the lack of empathy, the absence of urgency, and in many cases an absolute disregard by federal agencies for Puerto Rico issues.