By Istra Pacheco | Center for Investigative Journalism
English Version by Julio Ricardo Varela | Latino USA
CAROLINA, PUERTO RICO — It happens every time Angélica Ramos leaves her home and walks towards Highway 185 in the Carruzos neighborhood: the images of junk, furniture, mattresses, pieces of wood and other debris continuing to pile up on the side of the road.
Not far from there, in the area of Los Chalaos —right next to the bus stop and in front of an abandoned cockfighting stadium— the debris piles up as the days pass. Adrián López, who has lived in Los Chalaos for 30 years, says it’s the garbage since Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico on September 20. The 58-year-old López, who works as a systems analyst, says that cockroaches, mice, flies, mosquitoes and other kinds of insects are spreading all over the place.
In Carolina’s Santa Cruz neighborhood, for 45-year-old Carmen Sánchez, Hurricane María destroyed a large part of her home, where she lives on the second floor. Since then, Sánchez has tried to recover from the emotional and material losses but still has to deal with the damage. In the backyard of her house, Sánchez says that there is more debris than what she left out in mid-September but since no one has come to remove the pile, it all remains there. Broken furniture and equipment, along with all types of loose vegetation and branches, lie on the side of the road near her house.
“There are no sidewalks here. You have to walk along the edge of the road. Then the cars don’t want to go too far one way or the other, and they don’t want to scratch other cars, so that leaves us exposed to being hit by a car. Plus the rats and all that. We’re being exposed to so many things,” said Sánchez, who has a part-time job taking care of sick people.
The crews in Carolina, all the neighbors say, have kept up with the weekly task of picking up household garbage every Friday. In addition, roads, even in hard-to-reach areas near the neighborhoods of Canóvanas, are passable.
However, the issue surrounding the piles of debris and the sudden appearance of dumping sites littering the area is a different story.
“It accumulates water. You know, all the bottles, mosquitoes and their diseases they bring. Everything that’s there, in the mattresses that take in humidity and the animals that hide in the debris. It worries me,” said Ramos, a 37-year-old housewife who lives in the Los Figueroa sector.
Agreements With the USACE
So far, 49 mayors have signed agreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for the federal agency to take over the task of collecting debris. Many of these mayors signed the agreements about 45 days after Hurricane María.
In 10 of the municipalities that have signed agreements with the USACE, work hasn’t even begun. Meanwhile, mayors scramble with the little money and resources they have to hire additional companies, while they hope the USACE can offer a real remedy. That hope has turned to concern, since the USACE awarded its whole debris removal job to a single company: Xperts Inc.
The contract amount with Xperts Inc. is unknown because the USACE did not want to reveal it. USACE press spokesperson Lynn Marie Rose told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The CPI also asked whether the federal agency was satisfied with Xperts’ performance, the goals the company must meet and whether the project is on time.
The USACE also did not respond to those questions.
Xperts crews were supposed to start collecting debris in Carolina on December 15, two weeks after the agreement was signed with the USACE. But this did not happen. Mayor José Aponte and other Carolina municipal officials were not available to comment about the company’s delay and if the delay was impacting their neighborhoods.
Besides Carolina, Vieques is another municipality in Puerto Rico that is waiting for the USACE to at least visit them and begin work there.
When the CPI contacted Vieques mayor Víctor Emeric, he had not been able to talk to anyone for three days because the telecommunications towers have not been fixed. When he answered the phone, he said the USACE or Xperts (or whatever company was going to the do the work) was still not in Vieques. In addition, he also said that restoring the cargo transportation system which connects his island municipality to the rest of Puerto Rico has taken the vast majority of his time. Before concluding the conversation with the CPI, his phone call was cut off and could not be restored.
The USACE has not disclosed the eight other municipalities (besides Carolina and Vieques) where Xperts has not been able to start operations. Despite multiple requests by email, the federal entity would not identify these eight other municipalities or explain the reasons for the delay.
“Once we have authorization to enter, we start communicating with the municipality about the debris removal process… It takes time from when the request is made until the removal is done,” USACE press spokesperson Edward Rivera outlined in an email response.
Where Does the Work Go?
Mayors contacted by the CPI, as well as private contractors who started removal work in different municipalities only to see their contracts canceled, said the problem lies with Xperts. It was the only company hired by the USACE, and it simply cannot manage the massive amount of work required.
Since October 5, according to its Facebook page, Xperts started posting open invitations to local companies for truck and heavy equipment inspections.
On October 25, while Xperts continued to win new agreements with municipalities through the USACE, the company published a “Trucks Wanted” Facebook ad with a phone number to call.
The Xperts company page said that it has been helping Puerto Rico recover from hurricanes since 1989. The CPI confirmed that the company was incorporated in 1986.
“Xperts’ past performance has proven that they are capable of acting quickly, decisively, and effectively without risking the quality of the work or the safety of their employees or the public on any disaster recovery operation,” the page states. It also offers (with little details) work opportunities, directing interested parties to an email address.
Two industry business owners, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the USACE made a mistake by giving all the work to a single company. They also said the agreement was unfair because Xperts gets to keep a large part of the profits and pays the people or companies that it subcontracts a lower rate than what a contractor would have made through a direct agreement with a municipality.
According to La Perla del Sur newspaper, once Ponce mayor María Mayita Meléndez signed an agreement with the USACE, she took work away from local companies who were already collecting debris. She also didn’t pay them for the work owed. The mayor’s decision to work through USACE did not improve the Ponce project, said a contractor, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Using the current expenses already reported by the municipalities of Ponce, Canóvanas and Dorado, the Xperts contract could be around $196 million.
Xperts, Inc., whose 2016 financial reports submitted to Puerto Rico’s Department of State showed $3 million in profits, ignored multiple interview requests by the CPI.
The USACE said it could not disclose its current contract with Xperts. It provided information from 2013 and said that the CPI could file a FOIA request for more official documents.
In May 2007, the USACE awarded Xperts the ACI Contract for Debris Removal/Debris Reduction for Region 2C (South Atlantic Division), according to the company’s site.
Department of State records establish that the corporation for Xperts was formed in 1986. Until a year ago, Alberto González Chacón was the company’s president. On September 14, 2016, Alberto José González de Jesús became the new president of Xperts.
Promises and More Promises
Toa Baja mayor Bernardo “Betito” Márquez was the first mayor who contracted with the USACE. Soon, reality shattered his expectations: the group could not handle the work because they did not have enough crews available for the magnitude of debris after the hurricane. In order to resolve his problem, the mayor had to make alternate plans.
“This happened slowly. In meeting with the Corps of Engineers, I was told that the municipality would be free of debris in three weeks to a month. With the understanding that we were going to have 30 or 40 crews. So that process started slowly, and it led me to divide Toa Baja into two sectors: the northwest and the southeast. The [second] agreement with the Corps of Engineers then became this, ‘you are going to work in the northwest and I’m going to contract other companies for the southeast.’ It means that we are now operating with about five companies, and the Corps of Engineers, because that would be six,” Márquez explained.
Vega Baja mayor Marcos Cruz Molina also signed agreements with the USACE and did not hesitate to express his discomfort with the federal agency.
“At first, the experience was very difficult because since the municipality had an operation already in process, but [the USACE] sold the municipality on some big promises so an agreement could be signed. Within that agreement, it was established that they were going to hire our private crews. [The USACE] assumed all the costs. They said they would use our collection center, which already had all the permits, and that they would follow up the work in neighborhood. The problems began when they did not hire our personnel. The other situation was that they focused on a single neighborhood and not on the many neighborhoods [simultaneously], as we were doing,” Cruz Molina said.
Countless phone calls and adjustments happened before the process sped up a bit. Now, private subcontracted crews are going through more neighborhoods, but they still cannot enter yards in houses. If the resident is an elderly person, ill or unable to remove debris inside the property, the resident has to call the municipality so that the municipal staff can remove the debris from the house, and private crews can take the debris away from neighborhoods.
Everything is brought to a designated area until Sunday. That’s when Xperts subcontracted trucks show up to take the debris and bring it to Toa Baja’s main disposal site, which gets less traffic on Sundays.
“More is needed for their process to be quicker,” Cruz Molina said.
Salinas mayor Karilyn Bonilla said that she limited her agreement with USACE because she already knew that it was possible that they would not respond with the speed and agility such a task required. Also, she had enough machinery available. That’s why she decided to take care of the debris removal process. The USACE assistance was limited to final disposals in a collection center.
“Yes, I delegated the final disposal, and it was more an economic decision, because FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] had been very bureaucratic in reimbursing funds to municipalities. We have already contracted for more than $1 million and they had reimbursed us less than $100,000. That is almost nothing. By delegating the final disposal to the Corps of Engineers, I didn’t need to reimburse the contractors myself,” she explained.
Bonilla’s decision for a limited agreement worked for Salinas because the regional collection center was at Camp Santiago and the trips to the center were short. In this case, the transfer of debris became relatively simple and saved time in the process. Other mayors have faced problems because many disposal centers have long lines of truck drivers who all have the same goal: unload the debris they were carrying.
Estimates from the Solid Waste Authority suggest that the hurricane generated about 6.2 million cubic yards of trash and debris.
USACE spokesperson Edward Rivera said the goal was to remove 3.8 million cubic yards of debris, based on estimates from Puerto Rico’s municipalities.
For Carlos López, the mayor of Dorado, part of the challenge is avoiding FEMA’s bureaucratic process because his municipality is strapped for cash—the result of austerity measures taken by the Puerto Rican government months before the hurricane.
“I have heard that the Corps of Engineers promised quicker service [to other mayors], but because of the volume of contracts, they have not been so quick in the collection process, especially in the neighborhoods,” López said.
“We have contracted the final pickup [with the Corps] and we are using local contractors and municipal personnel to collect debris in the neighborhoods. It is an administrative strategy, because unfortunately the government has strangled the municipalities… FEMA reimburses, as it’s supposed to do, but unfortunately they are too slow. They gave us a $300,000 advance, but we have already invoices of $2 million dollars [to collect the debris] and we haven’t been reimbursed for anything else,” the Dorado mayor said.
Mayors Going Against the Grain
Two mayors, Julia Nazario Fuentes of Loíza and Lornna Soto of Canóvanas, have said “thank you, but no thanks” to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Both are satisfied with their decisions and ensure that they have made progress in cleaning up their municipalities.
Nazario Fuentes estimated that 80% of the debris has been collected. She hoped that by the end of the year, in less than two weeks, all the major debris work would finish. After that, she anticipate smaller crews going out to do final checks and reviews.
“The Municipality of Loíza began collecting debris immediately after Hurricane Irma, so that when María struck the area, a previous FEMA agreement made it possible for the work to resume with municipal public works employees and two private companies. In that sense, there was no urgency to reach an agreement with the Corps of Engineers,” Nazario Fuentes said in a written statement.
One strategy that worked for her: creating crews equidistant from each other in the Torrecilla Baja, Puente Herrera and Villas de Loíza neighborhoods, so that all the crews advanced towards Loíza’s urban area in an efficient manner.
For her part, Soto said that many factors led her to avoid an agreement with the USACE. She learned from her counterparts’ negative experiences and pointed out that since the federal agency subcontracted anyway, she thought it would be easier to do it on his own. Once the cases of leptospirosis began to occur in her municipality, she was convinced that she could not wait for anyone.
However, the Canóvanas mayor acknowledged that four companies were not enough to meet their expectations, and on the first week of December she opened up the bidding process to hire two additional companies—for a total of six.
Soto also mentioned she went ahead and requested a FEMA disbursement for debris collection. The agency gave 50% of the estimated $3.9 million she would need for the entire operation.
“I did some calculations. I estimated the yards that we had, plus the work hours needed for the job. We were among the first to send the request to FEMA. They gave us a 50% disbursement. With that, we could hire the machinery and pay other expenses. With that, we’re managing,” she said.
Read the Spanish version here.
This story was made possible by the Futuro Media Group as part of a collaboration supported by the Ford Foundation.