Many local contractors are in the program, boosting economy
Providing legal ownership is proving to be the hardest challenge the Federal Emergency Management Agency has to overcome in its housing program for survivors of Super Typhoon Yutu, according to Sheryl Cochran, director of FEMA’s Region IX Recovery Office.
Speaking at a radio news briefing last Friday, Cochran said they are pushing as hard and as fast as they can to get the housing program finished but that effort has had some significant stumbling blocks, chief of which is getting homeowners to provide proof of legal ownership.
Yutu hit the CNMI last October 2018. As part of its assistance to the CNMI, FEMA has stepped in to help homeowners with repairing their damaged homes and, in some cases, building brand-new homes for qualified residents. Three years later since Yutu, though, Cochran said they have 25 cases that are still pending legal review or adjudication with the court system to provide proof of legal ownership.
“And that’s 25 out of 290 total cases. And that doesn’t count the ones that we’ve completed,” she added. Cochran said they had completed over 74 of those cases already. “It would be easy to say, ‘Let’s start them all. Let’s start them all right now.’ But we had some significant issues that we had to deal with. Providing legal ownership has been the hardest to overcome,” she said.
Also, nearly a third of the people applying for housing aid needs assistance to have the legal documentation even to start work. “So right now, where we’re at is we’re really hitting those cases that are just clearing probate,” Cochran said.
She said FEMA believes that they will have everything through probate hopefully by late summer, and will be in the full-blown construction work by them.
She said as soon as they get those cases out, they have the construction and repair contracts awarded as fast as they can. Right now, there are 60 homes pending contract award on new construction and 17 pending contract award on repair, she added.
Cochran said while those are ready to go, they still have a number of other projects for procurement and make sure that they bid those out.
She concedes that nobody is going to be happy until FEMA is 100% done with the housing program. “And until we’re 100% done, we are always going to push as hard as we can to get additional contractors here to bring on additional homes as fast as possible,” she said.
On the other hand, Cochran said there is also a “big success story” to the situation and that is the number of local contactors that are really engaged in this program.
“Yes, there is a larger national contractor that’s here. But the vast majority of the work is going to the local contractors that are helping,” Cochran said.
That’s helping boost the CNMI economy, she said. “I think that that’s a really good thing for the CNMI and for its overall recovery and resiliency,” she pointed out.
She said it seems like it’s been a really long time since Super Typhoon Yutu. Cochran wants to reassure everyone, though, that FEMA remains dedicated and committed. “I’m not sure how many of you know that we do have a long-term recovery office here. That is very different than what FEMA normally does,” she said, adding that it’s one of very few long-term recovery offices that they actually have in the agency.
Cochran said it’s to make sure that they maintain that partnership, especially in insular areas, to rebuild that resilient community and make sure that they not only rebuild homes and infrastructure but also build capacity within.
She said they work quite closely with Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig and even with Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente to help make sure that they can get workers here and grow that capacity.
Cochran said they talk a lot about housing and how many houses they’ve built, but she reminds people that there’s been a big up push with the adaptation of the 2018 Building Code. “And those were really new to a lot of the local contractors,” she said.
Cochran said they appreciate everybody’s patience and diligence in staying committed to the program, but that one of the secondary things that happens when they execute these missions is that they bring in those different building codes and standards.
“And we shine a different light on how we can be more resilient, and how we can prevent future disasters,” Cochran said.
Right now, she said, they’ve returned a total of 107 homes to survivors, which is about 37% of the applicants that remain in the permanent housing program.
She said in both repair and new construction, they’re looking at being at about 57% complete by August 2021. “That’s really exciting for us to know that we’re quickly approaching the halfway point,” she said.
Of the 115 homes that remain in the repair program, Cochran said they’ve completed 80 homes here on Saipan and seven on Tinian. “So we’re getting work on both islands. Obviously [that] comes with its own challenges beyond just the normal challenges here on Saipan. So we really appreciate everybody sticking with us and helping us get this done,” she added.