SHARYL ATTKISSON, "FULL MEASURE" HOST: Imagine having the task of distributing the most aid money ever for a natural disaster responsibly to a government mired in corruption and under FBI investigation. That’s what’s happening right now in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico two years after two hurricanes, Maria and Irma. You have $91 billion reasons to care. That’s how much of your tax money is intended for recovery. Today, we go to Puerto Rico to follow the hurricane money and the fraud.
In the small Puerto Rican village of Corozal Brenda Rodriguez is still waiting for help. She recorded the frightening rise of the river outside her doorstep during Hurricane Maria.
Sharyl: What were you thinking when you saw the river coming up like that?
Brenda: That I was going to die and that the house would fall apart.
Two years later, Rodriguez still lives in the rotted-out home without a penny of the billions earmarked for hurricane recovery. She was surprised to learn she wasn’t eligible for assistance because she doesn’t own the house.
Brenda: A young man came around and gave me an application to fill and that’s it.
Sharyl: The mainland U.S.government gave a lot of money to the territory of Puerto Rico for hurricane recovery.
Rodriguez’s sister is on the phone helping translate.
Sharyl: Has she seen any of those funds they sent being used to help around your community?
Brenda: I haven’t seen any of that.
62,000 hurricane Puerto Rican victims, like Rodriguez, have been denied emergency help for technical reasons. That’s despite a record amount of U.S. tax money being devoted to recovery.
A Full Measure investigation crunched the numbers:
An estimated $48 billion dollars for Puerto Rico will come from emergency recovery funds.
$43 billion more has been appropriated by Congress so far.
In all, it’s estimated the recovery effort in Puerto Rico will amount to $91 billion U.S. tax dollars.
Of that amount, we found that the island has only received about $14 billion.
The biggest single chunk, $5 billion was spent fixing the electric system, which was already failing before the hurricane.
Nearly $20 billion has been earmarked for housing and shelter under “community planning and development” but two years after Maria, less than a million ($913,000) dollars has been paid out.
Omar Marrero is one of Puerto Rico’s top hurricane recovery officials.
Omar: When you talk about how much money has been allocated, earmarked for Puerto Rico, you're talking about billions. Then you're like, "Well, they're well off." No. That money, even though it has been obligated, there's not available still for the people.
Morrero told us not one damaged Puerto Rican school has seen permanent repairs in the past two years.
Omar:This is termites— I don't how to say in English.
Sharyl: Like their tunnel?
Sharyl: Is this classroom being used?
Sharyl: Well, and obviously it rains in here.
Omar: It rains .... exactly.
Omar: They’re painting over the mold, but the mold has not been remediated. The mold is from the hurricane.
To find out what’s wrong, we began with a helicopter tour of the 110-mile long island spotting dots of blue that mark homes that still have no roofs. Puerto Rico is extremely poor. At least 46% of its residents, 1.3 million people, were on welfare before the hurricanes.
Alberto Martinez, a history professor and Puerto Rico native, has been tracking the slow progress on the ground.
Alberto Martinez: Here we see one of the blue tarps distributed by FEMA to cover rooftops. These tarps were supposed to be usable only for 30 days, and yet it's two years after Hurricane Maria ... and yet still here it is.
Sharyl: Have the blue tarps kind of become a symbol of what's been left undone two years later?
Alberto Martinez: It's a symbol of the neglect. There's a bureaucracy in the way that prevents actual funds from being dispersed to individuals. Certainly contractors are making money, but individuals are not getting relief.
We took our questions to the top man in Puerto Rico from FEMA— the Federal Emergency Management Agency— Jonathan Hoyes.
Sharyl: Two years later, they're spending their own money, local money, to paint over mold because they don't have FEMA money or federal money to fix the roofs and to do anything else.
Jonathan Hoyes: We're not happy with the fact that people, as you say, if they are painting over mold are doing that.
But it turns out the biggest disaster relief effort in American history is also the most complicated.
Part of the explanation can be found in massive protests against Puerto Rico’s government while we were there in July.
Sharyl: Fueling discontent in Puerto Rico is news that the FBI is investigating a number of government officials and contractors are under fbi investigation over allegations of misuse of all the taxpayer money sent in after Hurricane Maria.
The FBI has arrested six top Puerto Rican government officials and consultants.
Also charged— FEMA official Ahsha Tribble - once an Obama homeland security adviser. Tribble took the lead on getting Puerto Rico’s electric grid fixed. Now she is accused of taking bribes to steer a $1.8 billion dollar contract to a company called Cobra. Cobra’s CEO at the time and a FEMA friend of Tribble's who went to work for COBRA were also arrested.
All have denied wrongdoing.
Sharyl: The FBI has arrested some top officials here and said that it's looking into Hurricane recovery fraud. How would it be possible to steal or commit corruption with this money that is being carefully tracked?
Omar: It could happen in the procurement process. Because, obviously, for any permanent work that was being initiated with disaster funding, you have to do procurement. So unfortunately, most of this recovery processes and as many other jurisdictions, we will not be exempt from wrongdoing.
What’s more, communities normally fund their own immediate repairs and then apply to get paid back by FEMA. But Puerto Rico was bankrupt and mired in a corruption scandal before the hurricanes. That means they didn’t have cash on hand.
Omar: FEMA it is totally agnostic to the fiscal economic situation in Puerto Rico. So as opposed to Texas, we don't have a rainy day fund.
Sharyl: Because you're already under financial management because of your, sort of like a bankruptcy.
Omar: Exactly, because when we came into public office, we were already dealing with two man-made hurricanes; fiscal and economic crisis.
Omar: Those challenges on the fiscal side exacerbates even more the recovery process of Puerto Rico.
Sharyl: The program may expect a community to lay out initial money and get paid back for it later?
Jonathan Hoyes: That's right.
But Puerto Rico really doesn't have that spare money.
Jonathan Hoyes: Some of the assumptions we have about what a community can do for itself and how quickly they can do it don't necessarily apply. And that's where we all have to be as flexible and as patient but as resourceful as we can be.
Both Puerto Rico and FEMA insist they’re doing what they can to get money to the needy while making sure it’s not lost to waste or fraud. Even without most of the recovery money actually in hand, Puerto Rico is slowly returning to normal.
Mego Garcia: We try to help each other recover but it was hard. It was really hard
For months, Mego Garcia says she cared for her mother and sister— both disabled— without power or running water.
Garcia: I don't work in seven or eight months.
Sharyl: You had to close down this business?
Mego Garcia: Yeah. I don't have money, no tourists.
Now, she’s been able to reopen the roadside business she’s operated for the past 27 years. And hurricane recovery officials tell us victims like Brenda Rodriguez may yet qualify for some aid, such as cash for relocating to a more livable house. For now, there’s just no telling when that might be.
Puerto Rico’s governor resigned in late July and the territory’s Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced is the new governor. She announced plans to review Hurricane relief funds and all government contracts.