Hoboken Mayor Returns From Puerto Rico Exchange Trip

May 27, 2018
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we said at the beginning of the program, this Friday marks the official start to the 2018 hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts an average season or slightly above average, but that is little comfort to those still rebuilding and repairing after last year's major storms in the Caribbean, Florida and Texas. Puerto Rico was hit particularly hard by the back-to-back storms Irma and Maria last September.

The Puerto Rican government was already in the middle of a financial crisis and was not prepared to deal with a natural disaster of this magnitude. Without electricity, running water or phone service, much of Puerto Rico was cut off from the rest of the world in the weeks that it took for the federal government to launch a response and get emergency supplies to the island. With the next hurricane season on its way, we wanted to know how much of the island has recovered since Maria. And how prepared is Puerto Rico for the next storm?

Next weekend, we'll try to answer those questions when we broadcast ALL THINGS CONSIDERED live from San Juan. We'll speak with local government and FEMA officials and with business owners, artists and community members who've been working hard to solve the problems that Hurricane Maria created and to build resilience and learn from their experiences of the storm and its aftermath.

Today, we'll hear about one initiative to share lessons learned. The Mayor Exchange program pairs mayors from mainland U.S. cities with mayors in Puerto Rico to form a dialogue about disaster preparedness and response. Ravi Bhalla just got back from his Puerto Rican exchange trip last week. He's the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., and he's with us now from his home on this holiday weekend. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RAVI BHALLA: Thank you, Michel, for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, you just got back from Puerto Rico. Would you tell us a little bit about the area that you visited? I understand that you went to Villalba.

BHALLA: Sure, yeah. Villalba is a small municipality about two hours by car from San Juan. It's literally in the center of the island. The municipality is about 37 acres in land and has a population of about 24,000 people. And that's where we had our site visit.

MARTIN: And so what are the challenges that your opposite number is facing there? What are they still dealing with?

BHALLA: Well, you know, Puerto Rico is a island of 78 municipalities. So you have 78 mayors competing for a limited amount of resources. So it's important for each of the mayors to do two things. One, identify creative ways to get their municipality on the radar, so to speak, with the federal government, with FEMA, with HUD, with the Department of Energy. And No. 2, it's important for them to realize that they're not in isolation. And it's important to take a collaborative approach and see where there are opportunities to pool resources to increase efficiencies as well.

MARTIN: You are among a number of mayors from U.S. mainland cities that are traveling to Puerto Rico, and you're going to invite your counterparts back to the mainland at some point. You've been through this yourself. Now, you were not mayor when Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast, but you were living in Hoboken at that time. You were involved in city government. Could you just talk about whether you saw any similarities or differences?

BHALLA: Sure. You know, I was on the city council in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit. So we were on the frontlines along with the mayor in terms of disaster recovery. It was a chaotic and hectic process. People did not know exactly what the proper protocols were, their procedures were. So part of the program is to really make sure that mayors and populations understand that they are not alone, that we here in the U.S., mayors of cities that have gone through similar experiences, we're here to help them.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that you saw in Puerto Rico when you were there? And did that remind you of kind of the days and the weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit Hoboken? Can you kind of help me see it a little bit better?

BHALLA: Sure. You know, we went to a region that was surrounded by mountains and rivers. So you saw the impacts of mudslides, rooftops with the blue tarp. You know, even eight months after the hurricane hit, you still see them in recovery mode, so to speak. And, you know, one thing I told the mayor was there were reimbursement forms processed by FEMA. In Hoboken, six years later, we're still in the process of closing out some of those project worksheets for reimbursement from Hurricane Sandy damage.

MARTIN: So what I think I hear you saying is that the recovery lasts far longer than maybe anybody would ever have imagined.

BHALLA: Correct. And, you know, that's not the most optimistic news we can deliver to Villalba, but we want to be realistic as well. And so it's important to think short term as well as long term in terms of Villalba itself. What makes this town, two hours inland in Puerto Rico, stand out to make it a city where the federal government would want to invest actual dollars in?

MARTIN: That's Ravi Bhalla. He's the mayor of Hoboken, N.J. He just got back from an exchange in Villalba, Puerto Rico. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BHALLA: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.