Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin recently participated in a mission to Puerto Rico as part of an ongoing initiative of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) to provide aid from the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office to assist the Puerto Rico Department of Justice with ongoing recovery efforts from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.
Attorney General Kilmartin, who was accompanied by Attorney General Lawrence Wasden of Idaho and staff from several other attorneys general offices and NAAG, met with Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez, the equivalent of Attorney General for Puerto Rico, at her temporary office in San Juan to assess the ongoing efforts to return the Department of Justice to full operation, which was severely affected by the hurricane. The Department of Justice headquarters was so badly damaged that it is marked to be demolished.
In addition, Attorney General Kilmartin visited a district office in Cagaus which was severely damaged from the hurricane and spoke with prosecutors working out of temporary offices while the Department finalizes the location for a more permanent office.
"Six months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the situation remains fragile at best. There is still a great deal of work to be done, and it is critical we help restore the Department of Justice to full operational capability to ensure the rule of law is maintained," said Attorney General Kilmartin.
The Department continues to struggle with the damage done to it by the storm. In addition to the destruction of its headquarters building, many legal files, both paper and digital, were lost. Computer systems were destroyed. With ongoing issues with the electric grid on the island, communication with its regional prosecutors across the island continues to be hampered.
In addition, nearly one in every 10 Puerto Ricans has left the island since the storm, including some skilled Department of Justice employees, while some remaining employees lost their homes.
Kilmartin offered Vazquez, who had been in office only eight months when the hurricane hit in September 2017, assistance from his Office in coordination with NAAG. The two discussed possible types of help, including technical assistance, providing temporary personnel, assistance replacing lost technology, designing new records systems, and access to training and support.
"The recovery of the Puerto Rico Department of Justice and the entire island is a slow, arduous, and ongoing process. The goal from this mission is to evaluate the information we have been given and create and implement a plan of assistance. I was thoroughly impressed with the professionalism of the staff having to endure the most adverse of conditions, not just work related, but also personal," added Attorney General Kilmartin. "The mission also underlines the critical need to maintain proper IT and physical back-ups, such as the upgrades we recently completed in our own office, which allow us to continue operations should a natural disaster such as this occur. The lessons learned through the experience in Puerto Rico will be taken back to Rhode Island and NAAG and incorporated into our disaster precaution and recovery plans."