September 15, 2022
Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Dina Titus (D-NV) during today’s hearing titled, “Recovery Update: Status of FEMA Recovery Efforts in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands 5 Years After Hurricanes Irma & Maria.”
Video of opening remarks from Chair Titus can be found here.
More information on the hearing can be found here.
I’d like to thank our witnesses for being here today to discuss the federal disaster recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands at the five-year anniversary of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
These hurricanes absolutely devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. They ravaged the islands’ infrastructure—the electric grids were wiped out, roads were made impassable, critical water infrastructure severely damaged, and thousands of homes were destroyed. The territory-wide destruction was unprecedented and posed major challenges for disaster response and recovery.
When Irma and Maria struck, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands did not have the necessary funds available to support a major disaster recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) recovery model is centered upon reimbursement. It is near impossible to kickstart a swift and efficient recovery without access to capital within the existing model. The scale of the destruction paired with liquidity constraints created an unprecedented challenge for the islands and FEMA.
The people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are entitled to the same quality of critical infrastructure available on the mainland. This includes access to transportation, education, health care, reliable electricity, and clean drinking water. So, while this recovery poses many difficulties—it is essential that we face challenges head on.
A second challenge this recovery encountered was federal underinvestment in the island’s public infrastructure prior to the storms. Most public infrastructure already required significant improvements. Consequently, it was quickly determined that FEMA should not use its traditional public assistance authorities to build back what previously existed. Instead, FEMA, Puerto Rico, and the USVI agreed to utilize new authorities provided by Section 428 of the Stafford Act, known as alternative procedures, which would allow the territories to build back better and more resilient.
However, it is important to note that to use alternative procedures, FEMA and the impacted applicant must determine the value of disaster damage and develop a fixed cost estimate for each project. If the actual cost of any project exceeds the fixed cost estimate the applicant is responsible for cost over runs. It is critical that the estimates are correct, and construction can begin swiftly once project funds are obligated. However, challenges posed by continued liquidity constraints in the territories, the global pandemic, and inflation have created many concerns that it may not be possible to complete projects at their estimated cost. I hope to frankly discuss these potential overruns with the witnesses today.
I am encouraged to hear from disaster recovery leaders in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands that their relationship with FEMA has improved in recent years and the pace of recovery has increased. There has been particular success obligating projects. However, very little reconstruction work has actually begun.
Reconstruction marks a new phase of recovery on the islands. I look forward to discussing potential challenges and solutions with the witnesses regarding reconstruction, so we ensure the future of these recoveries faces fewer roadblocks than the past.
I am committed to remaining an active partner in this recovery until the last repair project is complete. I expect FEMA to commit to do the same.
The people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have displayed incredible resilience these past five years. I thank our witnesses for being here today and look forward to discussing lessons learned and how we can make the remainder of this recovery a success.
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