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Puerto Rico faces slow recovery 2 years after Maria

DÁNICA COTO
FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2017 file photo, Department of Homeland Security personnel deliver supplies to Santa Ana community residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Federal authorities said Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, that they have arrested two former officials of the Federal Emergency Management Authority and the former president of a major disaster relief contractor, accusing them of bribery and fraud in the efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Weekly power outages. Hundreds of uncleared landslides. More than 25,000 homes with blue tarps as roofs.

Recovery from Hurricane Maria has been slow as Puerto Rico on Friday remembered those who died two years ago. The Category 4 storm killed an estimated 2,975 people in its aftermath and caused more than an estimated $100 billion in damage. It was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in nearly a century, sparking an estimated exodus of nearly 160,000 people to the U.S. mainland.

Still delayed are millions of dollars in federal funds that local officials say are needed to repair roads, build new homes and improve the island's unstable power grid, making it hard for Puerto Rico to recover as it struggles to emerge from a 13-year recession. Officials say the island is not entirely ready to withstand another direct hit at the height of hurricane season, noting that hurricanes Dorian and Jerry passed just northeast of Puerto Rico this month.

While U.S. Congress has appropriated nearly $43 billion in federal hurricane recovery funds for Puerto Rico, only $13.3 billion of the $21 billion obligated by the U.S. government has been disbursed, Ottmar Chávez, executive director of the island's Central Office for Reconstruction and Recovery, told The Associated Press.

"We certainly still have many needs, and there's still work to do," he said.

The state of the power grid remains one of the biggest concerns for Puerto Ricans since reconstruction has not even started.

"It's a project that will take seven years or more," José Sepúlveda, transmission and distribution engineer for Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority, told the AP on Friday.

He said transmission lines have been repaired and can now withstand winds of 140 mph (225 kph), but distribution lines, of which there are five times more than those of transmission, will likely not survive a Category 2 storm. Sepúlveda said crews also still have to bury power lines that connect to critical infrastructure including hospitals and relocate substations in flood-prone areas.

The power company is seeking $8 billion in hurricane recovery funds for upcoming projects, Sepúlveda said, adding that it takes time for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to review those projects.

Critics say Puerto Rico's government also has moved too slowly and accuse it of bureaucracy as the island recovers from recent political turmoil during which it had three governors in less than a week. Concerns about corruption also remain, with federal officials last week arresting a former top FEMA administrator and the former CEO of a power company that obtained $1.8 billion in federal contracts to repair the island's grid after Maria.

The delays in recovery are felt more acutely in the island's rural and impoverished areas, including the neighborhood of Las Monjas in the capital of San Juan, where a couple of blue roofs still remain.

"The owners have had to take out loans because everyone would die waiting for FEMA," said Ivette Henríquez, a 65-year-old housewife who is also upset that the streetlights where she lives have not been repaired since Maria.

Dave Bibo, FEMA's deputy associate administrator for response and recovery, told the AP that the agency continues to work closely with Puerto Rico's government.

He said FEMA now has six times the stock in warehouses across Puerto Rico than it had prior to Maria, and that more than 2,000 FEMA employees remain on the island.

"There's no question the Maria response and recovery have been among the most challenging missions in FEMA's history, but we are confident we will support the governor in building back Puerto Rico so it is stronger and more resilient," he said.