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Rebuild Puerto Rico: A Guide to Federal Policy and Advocacy

by Dr. Edwin Meléndez


Editor's Note: The following is an introduction to a report entitled, 'Rebuild Puerto Rico: A Guide to Federal Policy and Advocacy,' which is forthcoming from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. 

Puerto Rico is in a unique position as a beneficiary of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act, 1974), the law that structures federal natural disaster assistance for state and territories. As explained in this report, disaster support often requires multiple and special appropriations from Congress and the funding allocated for this purpose goes to a multiplicity of local and federal agencies that include Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and many others. Funding includes short-term assistance, disaster recovery efforts, and multiple assistance programs to individuals, businesses and government agencies. A substantial portion of the initial assistance to states and localities is channeled through FEMA, but other agencies play a critical role for long-term recovery.

Puerto Rico, like all other states and territories affected by natural disasters, competes for funding that has not been earmarked for specific jurisdictions. As explained in more detail in the report, qualifying for funding depends on numerous factors. In part, this is a technical issue where jurisdictions have to demonstrate assessments of damages. In part it is a political issue where Congress must legislate inclusion of coverage of specific needs in regular or supplemental appropriations. Supplemental appropriations have been necessary for allocating earmarked disaster relief funds to state, local, and tribal governments.

For these reasons, lobbying and advocacy efforts are complex, often involving FEMA, HUD, and other agency managers and staff participation in structuring program coverage for specific communities or mobilizing elected officials to support appropriations targeting specific programs or jurisdictions. This insider/outsider interplay requires collaborations among actors in different roles in the policy process and implicit or explicit coordination of strategies between various external stakeholders, in short, an advocacy coalition.

For discussion purposes, an advocacy coalition is a group of people that engage in the policy process with the goal of translating shared beliefs into action. In this case, we refer to a group of people seeking to support the rebuilding process in Puerto Rico through engagement and social action. Such a coalition, which in many respects already exists incipiently both on the island and in the diaspora, involves individuals and organizations from a variety of sectors, such as elected officials, local and federal agencies’ staff, interest group leaders, academics, researchers, and others. These stakeholders share a belief system, formally or informally coordinate advocacy activities, and develop communication vehicles to affect other collaborators strategies and influence public opinion.

To the extent that stakeholders harmonize common goals and strategies, they can influence legislative action, policy implementation, and affect the policy process. Information sharing among stakeholders is critical for affecting expert and public opinion and the policy process successfully. Advocacy coalitions develop information hubs for sharing scientific knowledge, analysis of legislation and agencies guidelines governing policy implementation, and newsletters and other vehicles influencing public opinion.

This report provides an overview of federal disaster relief policy, dissects the recovery process and the role of federal assistance, and discusses possible entry points for advocacy efforts. The impact of Hurricane Maria will be felt for decades, and long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico are expected to take years. In this report, the role federal funding plays in disaster relief efforts will be discussed, from congressional appropriation to final distribution to local governments and/or non-profits. As of today, supplemental appropriations for disaster relief add up to a total of $136.1 billion. Besides funding already earmarked, many of these funds can be further allocated to Puerto Rico relief efforts. Strong advocates are needed at various entry points in this recovery process: from the congressional level, where recovery funds are appropriated, to agencies that establish the primary use of these funds and disbursement criteria, to the local project level. Advocacy must form an integral part in the rebuilding process in order to ensure that policies and practices are improving conditions for those affected by Hurricane Maria.

Ironically, the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria has opened a window of opportunity not just for recovery from the catastrophe and rebuilding a more resilient infrastructure, but also for sustainable economic development. Recovery funding, especially when combined with funding from other federal programs, could provide the foundation to rebuild Puerto Rico in a more equitable and resilient fashion. The history of how Puerto Rico takes advantage of this window of opportunity brought about by recent catastrophic events is been written in an unfolding present.

The impact of federal funding designated through disaster relief and emergency assistance largely depends on the targeting of these funds to projects that rebuild a more resilient economic and social infrastructure. Federal disaster recovery funds are just part of what is potentially available to rebuild Puerto Rico’s economy, infrastructure, and civic capacity. In this guide, a wide range of federal programs are introduced to those who examine the topic for the first time, and it also serves as a reference to those who are broadening their understanding of how to support civic sector initiatives. Financing through available federal programs include a wide range of mechanisms, such as tax credits, the emission of bonds, loan guarantees, grants, and other incentives that, with a few notable exceptions, are currently underutilized in Puerto Rico.

These programs were successfully combined with recovery funding to restore economic development in other jurisdictions such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. One important lesson from the recovery process in New Orleans and East Coast states affected by catastrophic hurricanes was the design of governing bodies that promoted broad participation and more equitable outcomes.

One of the most important challenges that Puerto Rico faces in its recovery is the relative lack of effective civic capacity to take advantage of these federal programs—in other words, organizations with the sufficient human and capital resources to develop the projects, invest resources in the application process, or connect to the development networks needed to overcome the often insurmountable barriers of a very specialized local and federal procurement process. Building local capacity for undertaking social purpose economic development—fostering human and capital resources for the development of projects with the ultimate goal of a social purpose—is an urgent and imperative task.

In this context, it is imperative that the rebuilding of Puerto Rico is undertaken, encouraged, and embraced by a wide range of civic sector actors including businesses, cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, religious and educational institutions, and municipalities. It is precisely these stakeholders in conjunction to those making decisions about the allocation of federal resources that can forge an advocacy coalition in support of participation, transparency, equity, and accountability—all elements of good government. In essence the core goal of a broad coalition to rebuild Puerto Rico is simply effective, collaborative governance. We hope that this Guide to Federal Policy for Puerto Rico contributes to such a necessary, reachable and noble goal.

To acces the report and/or download a PDF, click here

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices 12 October 2018.