April 23, 2021

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Fishermen approach their third year without receiving funds due to losses after Hurricane Maria

From the CPI

Three years after Hurricane María, fishermen in Puerto Rico have not seen a penny of the funds for assistance due to the losses caused by the storm. Several fishing villages have not yet been rehabilitated and in others have not been able to resume their normal work due to lack of equipment, boats or ramps. In the worst case, some closed.

The bureaucracy in the handling of the funds added to the sloppiness in the processes on the part of the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Agency for Emergency Management (FEMA, in English) and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) have been the obstacle to access to money, found the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI).

“We had better let ourselves be dragged [por el huracán]. [El Departamento de] Agriculture told us that it did not know what to do with us. They let us down. We take the fish to a marquee of one of the fishermen, but when those refrigerators are full, we have to stop fishing for a week or two. Right now, we have nowhere to store. We have nothing, nothing, this is how we are: in nowhere, "said Rey Alma, president of the now defunct Villa del Ojo fish market, located on Crash Boat beach, in Aguadilla, where 42 fishermen worked.

After the hurricane In 2017, this town was left in ruins and what was left was collapsed due to new border points of the maritime-land zone, explained the Secretary of Agriculture, Carlos Flores Ortega. Although the official suggested moving the village to another area of ​​this municipality, even the fishermen from Aguadilla do not know the exact place and when that process would begin.

In seven months, the property titles of seven fishing villages of the Government did not appear

Although FEMA did not specify to the CPI the reasons why funds corresponding to the fishing villages have not been approved or disbursed, the Secretary of Agriculture acknowledged that the obstacle is that the agency has not provided proof of the property titles of seven of the fishing villages that he manages.

According to Flores Ortega, the claim for recovery funds was made en bloc for the 33 villages that belong to Agriculture. For that reason, by not being able to prove ownership of seven of these, FEMA has held the funds of all of them.

The problem of property titles was denounced on February 24, 2020 by the agronomist Víctor Marrero, director of the Program of Fisheries of the Department of Agriculture, during a public hearing in the Committee on Federal and International Relations and Status of the House of Representatives led by José Aponte Hernández.

Seven months later, Agriculture has done nothing to solve this problem and achieve Identify the whereabouts of the property titles in the Puerto Rico Property Registry.

“I have to be very honest: that [la búsqueda de los títulos de propiedad] has been postponed to attend to other things of extreme priority. There are things that are urgent and there are things that are immediate and we have been in that process ", accepted the Secretary of Agriculture.

Despite the fact that the CPI insisted on knowing which are the specific villages for which titles are not available. property, the agency did not provide the list. Flores Ortega limited himself to saying that the process to identify these titles was extended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that together with the agency's legal division they work so that, once the situation is normalized, they can conclude the process Search for those documents.

The hot potato: blame is distributed instead of recovery funds

The winds and waves of Hurricane María knocked down the pier of the fishing village Centro Agropecuario de Cataño. There, half of the tar from the parking lot fell into the water. The fishermen of that town removed some pieces of tar with their hands, said Rodolfo Abraham, spokesman for the town. The freezers, the ice machine, the security cameras, the air conditioners and all the fish inventory that were in existence at the time were also damaged at the site.

They have had to join forces to get up. They have enabled the pier, as they have been able, with wood that they have acquired on their own. There are 22 fishermen in that fishing village. “We are in limbo. If it were not for the help of other entities, we would not have been able to start ”, Abraham acknowledged.

According to the fisherman, it took two years for the Secretary of Agriculture to know the situation of the town after the passage of the hurricane in 2017. This year, Abraham said, he has not been seen in the area to find out how fishermen are dealing with the pandemic and the decline in sales.

A census done by CPI – which was answered by 31 of the 33 Agriculture fishing villages – reveals that at least eight villages have not received a visit from any official of that agency in three years to learn about the impact of the hurricane. The villages El Corcho, in Naguabo, and El Bajo, in Patillas, did not answer the census because “they are abandoned,” reported several consulted fishermen.

The Secretary did visit the Martenillo fishing village in Fajardo after the passage of the hurricane and it also did this this year, said Elba Dávila, fisherwoman and leader in the place. However, these visits have been of little use, since the space is currently in disuse due to damage that has not been repaired since 2017.

“[Con María] the dock left, which was made of wood. The ramp was damaged. The roof of the fish shop leaks and the cement rod exploded. The front door was damaged, causing vandals to break into it. Two fishermen lost their boats and we do not have freezers or refrigerators, ”Dávila listed. He clarified that so far they have not received any help from either the Government or private entities, as has happened with other villages.

Flores Ortega has also been on several occasions in the fishing village of Punta Santiago, in Humacao, according to the spokesman for that group of fishermen, Antonio Torres. He explained that in this village – which brings together 17 fishermen – the losses amounted to $ 40,000. He stated that so far they have not received any help from the Department of Agriculture.

“We have had to survive. With Maria we had like 600 pounds of assorted seafood that was lost. We lost eight freezers and the ice machine, which was like $ 9,000. Apart from the damage to electricity systems, toilets, kitchens. Our losses were over $ 40,000. That is not counting the losses of each one and the losses due to not being able to work for more than a year ”, Torres explained. The fisherman said that the Secretary of Agriculture expressed his interest in painting the town of Punta Santiago. However, Torres said that he was against it, since he understood that, taking into account the damage to the infrastructure, “that was not a priority.”

Despite recognizing the low priority that his agency has given to solving the problem of property titles, Flores Ortega blamed FEMA for the delay in the disbursement of all the funds requested to compensate for the disasters in the fishing villages of Puerto Rico. The official was frustrated by the time the process has taken to receive these funds and criticized FEMA for constantly changing inspectors. He said that each change in personnel has meant starting the inspections in each of the villas from scratch, which has taken almost three years. Although the CPI was able to validate that there have been changes in FEMA personnel, the census also shows that 15 fishing villages have not received any visit from this federal agency since the hurricane passed in 2017.

“It is a slow process . Sometimes work teams change. When a new team comes, they want to go see again and be sure of what they will pass. Sometimes they add things that the team that was before did not put or others take away. It is a slow and tedious claim process. We have had to hire engineers to accompany them to appraise. It's quite uphill, "said Flores Ortega.

Debate on the funds needed for the fishing sector

Of the 33 fishing villages of the Department of Agriculture, 28 had private insurance coverage with the Multinational insurer at the time of Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017. Claims to FEMA for the 33 facilities totaled $ 14,179,050, according to Flores Ortega. Of that amount, $ 6,005,391 correspond to losses due to damage to structures and equipment. However, after insurance adjustments, that figure remained at $ 2,403,893 as the amount to claim from FEMA. According to Agriculture, to date they have received only $ 391,971 in FEMA funds for debris removal; that is, 16.9% of the total losses.

Juan Andrés Muñoz, FEMA External Affairs officer, indicated that the agency currently has ten projects under development related to fishing villages under Category E of the Public Assistance Program , in which permanent works projects are being worked on.

He acknowledged, however, that so far "there have been no funds approved or obligated by FEMA" for these 10 projects, but he did not answer why.

FEMA reported that The total amount of funds projected for the fishing villages is estimated at $ 5,717,829 according to the initial evaluation of the projects, which represents $ 8.4 million less than the losses projected by Agriculture in the fishing sector after Maria. When Flores Ortega was asked about this incongruity, the official limited himself to saying that one thing is the item they claim and another is what FEMA finally approves based on its inspections.

Once these funds are disbursed, another challenge is anticipated for their use, according to Flores Ortega, since there are fishing villages that are closed due to the same accumulated deterioration after years of neglect and some do not have active boards of directors, which means that the agency will be challenged to identify who would manage the funds to be distributed. Currently, 13 villas are closed and 13 are partially functioning, the CPI found. The Secretary of Agriculture did not specify what measures the agency would take to help organize these meetings.

For his part, the president of the Federation of Fishermen and Defenders of the Sea (Fepdemar), Miguel Ortiz, told the CPI that prior to the pandemic, his organization had begun an effort to support the formation of several boards, so that fishermen in those areas are not at a disadvantage in the distribution of recovery funds.

Direct help for fishermen also in the DNER is endured

In April of this year, the National Office for Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved a proposal submitted by the DNER in 2019 for the use of federal funds from the Fishery Disaster Assistance program allocated to assist the fishing industry in Puerto Rico after the passage of hurricanes Irma and María in 2017.

Of the $ 9,791,123 million approved in the first phase, the DRNA proposed to allocate only $ 400,000 for direct aid ects fishermen. The agency hopes that NOAA will approve a second phase of the application that would grant another $ 1.6 million to serve the fishing industry in Puerto Rico and that could also benefit fishermen. For example, in this second proposal it is considered to allocate $ 300,000 for the repair of boats, explained Damaris Delgado, Acting Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Investigations of the DNER

Since 2019, the fishermen sector has opposed to the proposals submitted by the DNER to NOAA. They claim that they were not included in the preparation of the project for the use of funds and that a greater amount should have been allocated to help them directly. Despite these complaints, the DNER kept the item at $ 400,000 for the individual losses that occurred in 2017. If that figure is divided by the 900 fishermen registered at that time, each would receive only $ 400. However, this amount could fluctuate as the agency considers dividing the funds using three categories of commercial fishing: full-time, part-time, and charter. For that reason, Delgado was unable to specify how much of these funds would actually go to each fisherman.

“It would not be fair to pay an amount to a person who only fishes once a week [versus] to one who fishes full time ”Delgado stated.

The agency opened the call to request these funds on July 5, 2020 and the fishermen had only 30 days to complete the process, which consists of filling out a form and registering in the Government's suppliers registry. in the Department of the Treasury. The fishermen also had to prove that they had a valid license in 2017 and that they had complied with the delivery of the statistics of trips to the sea and fishing required by the DRNA Fisheries Laboratory for that year.

Delgado explained that the call was extended until on August 14, because of 900 fishermen, only 345 requested the aid. He also said that they had encountered problems with the applications, as some of them came in duplicates. Fishermen could fill out the form online or send it by mail. "But some were doing both procedures" in parallel, the official acknowledged.

The DRNA is evaluating the possibility of making another round for the convocation, the agency's acting secretary, Rafael Machargo Maldonado, told the CPI, who could not clarify when would that new turn begin. He limited himself to indicating that they are in talks with “fishermen's associations to examine this possibility.”

That second round would further delay the delivery of these funds, because, according to Delgado, the DNER must wait to have all the requests for the fishermen who qualify for the aid to be able to make the distribution of the $ 400,000, which must be used in a period not exceeding four years, from April 1, 2020.

“We don't want to wait four years. We want to deliver the money as soon as possible. We had a fairly ambitious schedule, but since we have extended [la convocatoria] we are facing the challenge of maintaining the same deadline ”, said Delgado, who preferred not to reveal the date on which they expected to have completed the delivery of funds.

For him President of Fepdemar, the low participation of fishermen responds to the distrust towards the management that DNER has given to the process with NOAA.

“[El DRNA] is forcing the fisherman to fill out the form. They will use those forms to say that the fishermen accepted the proposal without question. The reason we have not filled it out is because it is a run over and because it is a double-edged razor. They will use our signatures to tell NOAA that we agree. NOAA never knew with certainty the problem of the fishermen with this proposal, "said Ortiz, who is president of the Pozuelo fishing village in Guayama, which is home to 19 members.

Ortiz denounced that they have not received clear guidance on how to complete the application and what are the steps to register with the Department of the Treasury.

“They believe that sinners are executives who are in an office; not everyone has the facility to print a letter or fill it out online. If that is helpful, I do not understand why I have to register with the Treasury ”, questioned the fisherman.

Delgado differed from Ortiz's expressions by indicating that he asked the Secretary of the DNER to make the process as less complicated as possible so that he was exempted the delivery of other documents that must ordinarily be presented by Government suppliers, such as certifications of no debt with the Municipal Revenue Collection Center (CRIM), the Administration for the Support of Minors (ASUME) or certificates of good conduct, among others . He also said that the agency distributed the printed applications in several fishing villages – it did not clarify which ones – and that they received help from the experimental stations of the University of Puerto Rico for this process.

More than a year ago, Fepdemar and the The Puerto Rico Fishermen's Congress objected to the use of the $ 11.4 million that would add up to the two phases of NOAA funds to be managed by the DNER. They even went to court so that the agency – at that time headed by former secretary Tania Vázquez – delivered a copy of the proposal for the use of the funds to the fishermen.

Vázquez, who also directed the Environmental Quality Board, resigned on October 31, 2019 after it became known that the Federal Investigations Bureau (FBI) investigates alleged irregularities in contracts for the maintenance of flood control pumps that allegedly the DRNA awarded companies close to the superintendent of the Capitol, José Jerón Muñiz Lasalle.

The plan of use for NOAA funds was presented in June 2019, when Vázquez was still running the agency. This proposal allocates funds to restore fish habitats, mitigate invasive species, and manage sargassum on the coasts, training fishermen, and rehabilitating fishing villages by rebuilding ramps and installing solar plants, among other projects. NOAA approved in April of this year the use of funds for these projects proposed by the DNER. However, four months after that approval, the local agency does not know when the steps to carry out the projects will begin, Delgado acknowledged. According to the official, the first request for a proposal for one of the projects would only be published in September, and she preferred not to advance which one.

Fishermen do not trust Agriculture for the distribution of funds to mitigate losses due to COVID-19

Victor Lamb, from the Punta Tuna fishing village in Maunabo, expected Easter to pass in April of this year to close. Since 2017, there have been multiple challenges to be able to operate in that town. This year, the fisherman said, the situation with COVID-19 has complicated work and sales.

With the hurricane, they lost a freezer, fish mincers, diving tanks, the fish market door and the floor, pipes, power lines and a boat. That scenario forced Lamb and the other three fishermen who remained in the village to stop using it. "I will put a freezer at home and sell the fish from there," the fisherman resolved.

Photo: Víctor Rodríguez

Fishermen in the southern zone have been doubly affected due to to the earthquakes that have impacted the region since the beginning of this year. Marcos Chacón Soto, spokesman for the Bahía Pueblo fishing village in Guánica, said that after the earthquakes this year, eight fishermen – of the 20 who made up the village – had a loss who moved from this municipality or went to the United States.

“Covid-19 and the tremors have harmed us. This year sales have dropped significantly. I was closed from April to July. Now in August we are working part time, like four hours a day, because there is not much inventory. There is not much sale either because people are not arriving ", explained the fisherman.

With the hurricane, this village lost its dock. Although the fishermen made arrangements with Agriculture to repair it, Chacón Soto said that the agency told them they did not have money for it. Among the fishermen and several businesses in the area they managed to collect $ 2,200 to rebuild the pier, and immediately got down to work.

The president of Fepdemar agreed that the pandemic, added to the earthquakes that affect the southern part of Puerto Rico Since the beginning of 2020, they have caused the sales of their products to decline even more. In his case, he explained that it is not a question of lack of fish, but of customers.

“Now the sale of fish is weak. I have the freezers full and I don't have space to receive all the fishermen's catch. What's more, what they bring is hardly even sold. It has been a few Sundays since I have been open because of the pandemic. But [otros días] we have had to open because we have a lot of fish, "said Ortiz.

Roberto Silva, president of the Puerto Rico Fishermen's Congress, agreed with him, for whom the Department of Agriculture has not been proactive in knowing the challenges that fishermen face and that add to the challenges they have been dragging on since 2017.

Both fishermen expressed concern about the management that Agriculture will give to a fund of $ 1,000,000 approved by NOAA to help fishermen affected by the pandemic. These are funds allocated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

It was not until last Thursday that fishermen finally had a meeting with the Secretary of Agriculture to discuss the management of these funds, Ortiz confirmed.

According to the official, the projection of delivery of this assistance due to losses due to the pandemic is estimated for October of this year. As with the funds administered by the DNER, the amount that each fisherman would receive could vary. In this case, it would range between $ 600 and $ 4,000, depending on whether it is full or part-time fishing or if you are a charter fisherman . Ortiz and Silva opposed this calculation and, during the meeting with the Secretary, they proposed that the base amount be increased from $ 600 to $ 800. "The Secretary resisted, but in the end he accepted that the items be readjusted," explained Ortiz, who is waiting for a second meeting with the agency in which the final proposal that will be sent to NOAA regarding these funds will be presented.

According to Flores Ortega, this fund would be destined to 975 fishermen registered in 2019.

While the official said that that year the fisheries saw a relative stabilization after the damage caused by the hurricanes of 2017 and that in 2018 they were still evident, the fishermen they give an account of another reality.

“This uncertainty affects us in a very drastic way. In addition to the hurricanes in the area, we have been hit by the tremors and now the coronavirus. Fishing for this area decreased. In Ponce, Guayanilla and Peñuelas they suffer incredibly, because they cannot sell their fish. It is hard for the fishermen of the south. A lot of money was lost, "said Ortiz.

Several fishermen consulted by the CPI warned about the problems that Agriculture uses as a reference to distribute funds the number of trips to sea in 2019, since they do not reflect the real situation of these workers . "Some have had to move to partial fishing because the hurricane damaged their boats," said Ortiz, who specified that there are fishermen who would be at a disadvantage when requesting these funds in this way because they have not been able to resume their work at the level they had. before 2017.

Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez is a member of Report for America. Angelica Serrano contributed to this story.

This story is published in Metro thanks to an alliance with the Center for Investigative Journalism. You can read its original version HERE

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