5 years after Hurricane Maria, no lessons: when corruption trumps reconstruction in Puerto Rico
It did not come as a surprise that Hurricane Fiona wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico. Despite being a category 1 hurricane compared to Hurricane Maria’s category 4 strong winds five years ago, I wrote this with whatever little generator power I had left. That’s because once again, Puerto Rico was out of power, many out of water, and our infrastructure was collapsing due to extensive flooding. But what breaks my heart is that much of this could have been avoided.
For the past five years, the Government of Puerto Rico has repeatedly promised to make our streets and bridges more resilient, rebuild our energy grid, and provide new opportunities for local development. Over billions in federal funding has flowed through many state agencies, yet building back has been anything but efficient or transparent. Alongside many other organizations, community leaders, and activists, Sembrando Sentido, the organization I lead, has called for a systemic and inclusive process for how this spending is prioritized and implemented.
Puerto Rico loses up to three billion dollars a year due to corruption and weaknesses in public contracting processes, which results in low-quality, unreliable, and unnecessarily expensive essential services, from building up the power grid to rebuilding our roads. These weaknesses, specifically surrounding efficiency, transparency, and equity, become evident in Puerto Rico’s inability to build back better. While many local disaster recovery agencies are aware of these shortcomings, most have repeatedly neglected to discuss or address proposed solutions provided by local actors, including experts in governance and accountability.
Competition for disaster recovery contracts is limited to only three bidders, and the period to evaluate and award a contract is nearly five months on average. Requests for proposals take nine months. This results in significant delays in reconstruction and rebuilding efforts. For example, despite billions dedicated to housing, only 2% of housing needs have been met, according to the UPR Resiliency Law Center.
There is also a massive disparity between funds awarded to Puerto Rican-based contractors (~ 36%) versus contractors based in the United States mainland (~ 63%). What a lost opportunity to support the local economy!
The demand for more transparency and participation in how this critical spending is prioritized and who benefits has fallen on deaf ears. Agencies, such as the Puerto Rico Department of Housing offer only one citizens’ meeting a year with little accountability about decisions taken. Citizen participation is made more challenging by agency websites that provide no real information on actual projects, their funding allocations, the impacted location and population, their progress, or even something as simple as how to get involved. The outcome is further disenfranchisement that prevents true participation in the reconstruction process to ensure the money ends up where it’s needed the most.
Transparency issues are profoundly exacerbated in Public-Private Partnerships processes, where multimillion-dollar transactions that greatly impact services such as the energy sector, have little to no accountability, citizen participation or transparency. As a result, private contractors like Luma Energy must be brought to court simply to force their hand to provide basic information on how they spend taxpayer money. Luma Energy has exponentially raised energy prices for customers but pays no consequences for producing longer power outages and showing no progress in strengthening our grid.
The sad reality is that corruption in Puerto Rico is growing, not shrinking. States of emergency, such as during and in the aftermath of a hurricane, exacerbate the misuse of funds. That’s when procurement controls are thrown out the window, allowing the Government to use the “urgency” excuse to address foreseeable needs without rigorous planning, competition, or transparency. No doubt that spending fast is critical in an emergency. But it needs to be transparent to ensure it is accountable.
This isn’t just about efficiency or about misuse of your taxpayer dollars. It’s also costing lives. Our 3.2 million U.S. citizens deserve better than an illusion of reform. We have an opportunity to do things differently.
We must increase transparency to protect public resources and ensure the money is spent fairly and efficiently. We must know who the government does business with, for how much, and who will benefit. Most importantly, we need to design processes that listen and prioritize the needs of the local communities. And we must innovate to mitigate the climate risks Puerto Rico is exposed to that are undoubtedly going to get increasingly more severe thanks to our changing climate. A truly just and transparent recovery can prepare Puerto Rico to withstand the Fiona’s and Maria’s of tomorrow.
Issel Masses has over 13 years of international development experience specializing in social mobility, human rights, and governance. She is the Founder of Sembrando Sentido, a non-profit organization on a mission to strengthen civil society advocacy efforts for more transparent, responsible, inclusive, and efficient government practices in Puerto Rico.