“We’re not here to make everybody whole,” said Michael Byrne, FEMA coordinator of recovery projects a year after Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico, September 20, 2017. “None of our programs are designed to fix everything that went wrong for individual families,” he told the New York Times. We’re just here “to give you a leg up.”
That unambitious vision wouldn’t be as disappointing to residents whose homes were destroyed by the storm, if the costs of shoddy repairs weren’t inflated to the proverbial “arm and a leg.”
By the Times careful estimate, roughly 60% of the federal dollars spent on repairs under one bigger-than-a-billion-dollar FEMA program called Tu Hogar Renace (Your Home Reborn) was skimmed off in expenses and profits by the top tiers of contractors, leaving 40% for the sub-sub contractors who do 90% of the actual repairs.
What aid money actually produced in repairs, local residents told the Times, can generally be summed up as “not enough” – not enough to make homes really habitable, and not enough value for money spent.
One local lawmaker criticized the FEMA project to help Puerto Ricans recover from the storm as a mixture of corruption and incompetence, which suggests thievery from the bottom up. But the Times investigation showed exploitable rules, regulations and pricing policies, combined with exploitative contractors, many as politically as professionally credentialed creates cost inflation from the top down.
Frances Robles is a national and foreign correspondent based in Miami. Before joining The Times in 2013, she worked at the Miami Herald, where she covered Cuba and was based in both Nicaragua and Colombia.