A newly revived White House Puerto Rico task force will be focusing on advancing rebuilding efforts on the U.S territory following Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, last year’s earthquakes and the Covid-19 pandemic instead of joining the ongoing congressional debate over Puerto Rico’s political status — one that responds to decades of tensions around the fate of the island’s relationship to the mainland.
“We don’t have jurisdiction on status, but we do have jurisdiction on the billions of dollars that have gone to the island. And there’s a real concern that these dollars might not be spent in a way that would make a real difference,” White House Associate Director for Puerto Rico and the Territories Gretchen Sierra Zorita told NBC News Wednesday.
The federal government has allocated over $65 billion in recovery funds to Puerto Rico, but communities on the island have only received close to $21 billion, according to the Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency.
Most of the funds have been allocated to FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Education.
“This is such a historic opportunity to do it right at all levels and to use these resources,” Sierra Zorita said. “You don’t want to have a situation where you’re spending money and then, 20 or 30 years down the line, you say, what did we do? What did we spend that money on?”
“We want to spend our energy and focus on doing it right, or at least attempt to do it right, rather than to be bogged down by a debate on the status,” she added.
The White House Working Group on Puerto Rico held their first meeting on Tuesday. It was attended by a significant number of officials, including 10 members of Biden’s cabinet and four agency deputy secretaries, according to the White House.
Hoy fue la reunión inaugural del Grupo de Trabajo de la Casa Blanca sobre Puerto Rico, un esfuerzo cual el Presidente Biden se comprometió a poner en pie para proveerle a Puerto Rico los recursos y la asistencia técnica necesaria para reconstruirse y prosperar. pic.twitter.com/w8mLEmZoRh
— La Casa Blanca (@LaCasaBlanca) July 21, 2021
Investing in the long-term resilience of the island and its infrastructure to ensure communities can withstand future disasters is a top priority for the task force, the White House said in a statement.
But when considering Puerto Rico’s ability to withstand future disasters, officials are also thinking about the impacts of the island’s decadeslong fiscal crisis, which was triggered after U.S. laws arbitrarily excluded Puerto Rico from the federal bankruptcy code.
The move blocked the island from resolving their $72 billion debt crisis through Chapter 9, and prompted Congress to pass the PROMESA law in 2016 to create a federally appointed fiscal board tasked with restructuring the debt. The move has resulted in tough austerity measures.
Sierra Zorita said that the task force’s current recommended policy priorities include economic development, education and workforce development, and recovery and delivery.
“Under economic development, that’s where you’ll see things like the fiscal issues and job growth,” she said.
Additionally, under recovery and delivery, officials will focus on addressing issues limiting Puerto Rico’s capacity to manage their ongoing crises.
“If you teach the island how to manage these huge amounts of funds and how to deliver these services, you’re building capacity. That capacity can be transferred to other areas of government,” Sierra Zorita said. “The notion, to some extent, is to cut the dependency, not because we don’t want to help, but because people don’t want to be dependent. They want to manage their own affairs and they want to be resourceful on their own.”
Officials say reinstating the White House Puerto Rico task force, which has existed under almost every recent administration expect the one of former President Donald Trump, was part of Biden’s campaign promise to Puerto Ricans.
For Sierra Zorita, reactivating the task force “is an expression of that commitment,” she said.
Under Trump, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Peter Brown was appointed as the White House’s special representative for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery, 10 months before Trump’s term ended.
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