Regardless of who is to blame for the delay in delivering federal aid throughout the island; how the local government can be a more efficient facilitator?
RR: We have been identifying every historic bureaucratic obstacle that we have faced during the recovery phase. Secondly, we have been working side by side with the private sector to address one of the main issues we faced during the emergency: business continuity. Thirdly, we want a more direct collaboration with nonprofit organizations, especially with those that have been able to help people that still do not have a roof in their houses. They have done it at their pace, but it has been efficient. As we prepare for a new hurricane season, we have prepared a log, which contains nearly 20 pages of changes we have made to protocols. This serves as a learning experience so we can be more successful in the future.
Now that high-ranked federal officials are visiting the island, a year after the storm are you planning to demand more accountability? I ask you this because the mayors are desperate, especially because the problem with roof tarps has not been resolved.
The truth is that the first funds we received are from FEMA, but we have faced historic obstacles because of bureaucracy. And I keep reemphasizing that this is a result of our colonial status. For example, at this moment we only have six permanent projects that have been initiated through FEMA. However, we should have hundreds of permanent projects. FEMA has also imposed a bureaucratic process that is too long. This is one of the reasons why municipalities are having trouble gaining access to these resources. Another thing that has slowed down the process is the waiver of the 100 percent of the shared costs regarding the emergency assignments. In Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina, they obtained the waiver during the emergency and the recovery process. In Puerto Rico, it has been denied. FEMA denied our petition and, for these reasons, I have gotten the president’s attention. I do have to say that FEMA contained the impact to many houses, and that is why you see a lot of homes that still have roof tarps. We do see that as a good sign, that in the next few days the Community Development Block Grant will disburse $1.5 billion. This will directly impact our citizens, especially to fix roofs and damaged houses, to obtain title deeds, and to improve communities. There is hope.
Now that you bring up the president, his last remarks have been described as unfortunate. Some analysts have compared this moment with the one your father, former governor, Pedro Rosselló, had with Congress when he told them “don’t push it.” Some are wondering why you have not assumed a more harsh position toward the president. What has to happen for you to have a “don’t push it” moment just like your father?
We live in different times. It is a more dense setting. At this moment, you can hear some people saying that the recovery phase was perfect, that it deserves a 10. And then, there is another group that says assures that the recovery process was a total disaster. The truth is that there have been areas that were poorly managed and others that were excellently handled. My job as governor is to be able to identify those things and resolve the aspects that were poorly managed. I do not see as productive for my people that I engage in all the fuss or criticizing just for the sake of it. My main objective is to deliver things that are beneficial to the people and, in order to achieve that, I think that dialogue is the best mechanism. When things turn negative like the president’s remarks, which firstly I think he is wrong toward the death toll, and secondly, I asked him to deliver a message that conveyed empathy and respect. If we engage in a conflictive dynamic just for a headline or because certain groups would support it, that is not my role. I am here to find solutions.
Puerto Rico: One year later
The death toll has been regarded as one of the most sensitive themes in the hurricane’s aftermath. I remember that initially, you expressed that the death toll could indeed rise, but that you would only report those that were corroborated. However, as early as September 28, 2017, Metro had been publishing stories from the Center of Investigative Journalism (CPI) that indicated —with data and testimonials— that the death toll was higher compared to the government’s numbers. Then, the death toll was updated the same day that President Trump left Puerto Rico. At what stage did that problem get out of your hands? Why did the government not recognize earlier the critical situation regarding the health system? Specifically, that there were more deaths and to adopt measures that would have prevented them. Is there a specific critical mistake you can recognize in this regard?
RR: We experienced an unprecedented situation. Every protocol we had inferred some sort of functionality. We followed the CDC’s protocol, it was the best we had at the moment. However, we figured that the protocol was insufficient. I also found out when I visited municipalities and different places around the island, there were certain deaths that were not being counted. At that moment, I determined to stop the death toll with the mechanism we had. Then, we started a validation process with external help, scientific and credible, in order to reach the correct death toll. Yes, looking back now, we do see errors that could have been mitigated. I certainly would have liked to go over all the preparation process and assume the worst case scenario, and; to have the necessary time —I had only eight months as governor— to make the required changes in order to face a disaster of this magnitude. I would have liked to identify earlier those mistakes that I perceived when I visited the municipalities.
The secretary of Public Safety, Héctor Pesquera, is the public official who has faced most criticism after the storm. But in reality, the Demographic Registry —which is part of the Health Department— is the one in charge of death certification. Pesquera assumed responsibilities of Health Secretary, Rafael Rodríguez?
The thing is that it was a normal structure of response. When María struck us it left unprecedented devastation. I looked at my team and Pesquera had experience working after hurricane Andrew in Florida, whereas none of the other members in my administration had experience with this kind of catastrophe. As secretary of security, heading the coordination of local emergency response and forensic science, I determined that he was the right person to lead this response.
Are you satisfied with the health secretary’s performance?
There were a lot of obstacles, but we can assure that we are going to identify those mistakes in order to improve in the future. I will be evaluating if in fact, we are improving and if the necessary changes are being made. Also, if there is the disposition to work, I will continue to lend my support. However, if there is no disposition, I will be forced to make some changes.
What have you learned of this troubled and intense year?
There are various lessons. Firstly, we have to prepare for the worst. Neither Puerto Rico or the United States was prepared for the worst. Secondly, the resilience and response of the Puerto Rican people. Thirdly, the differences that exist between first class and second class citizens. And —this is something for me— is to be self-critic, evaluate the mistakes and to build around them in order to avoid them.