The recovery of Puerto Rico: houses without roofs, schools closed, an abandoned island
PUNTA SANTIAGO, Puerto Rico (In English)
The face of Puerto Rico forgotten after Hurricane María could well be that of José Luis “Chegüi” Aponte Cruz, who lost his job and everything he had in his house when the fury of the storm caused the sea to enter a mile in this poor beach community, destroying almost everything in its path.
María destroyed the bright yellow painted block picnic area where people went to look for Chegüi's famous little bacalaítos. The storm took the freezer, the refrigerator and the stove, the tables and the chairs, and nothing was insured. A year later, after being denied bank loans and government assistance to reopen with a food truck, Chegüi — like much of Puerto Rico — has barely begun to recover.
Once a week, on Sundays, he takes a donated stove and tent to the beach to sell codfish and pastries, hand-made and stuffed with masses of fish and crab, to the few loyal customers who still come to what he it is still an insurmountable picnic area, actually a couple of walls without a roof. But it's not the same.
“This was a family environment. This filled me up,” Chegüi said, teary-eyed as she reminisced about the many years of cooking at Kiosko El Amarillo, while her two sons served customers at the counter.
“I wanted to continue, buy a food truck, but, well, we are struggling”.
Today, there is little in Punta Santiago that resembles what there was before Maria swept across the island, leaving it in darkness, destroying or damaging hundreds of thousands of homes and worsening an economic and political crisis that had begun long before. To say that recovery is patchy and uncertain does not begin to describe the true situation in Puerto Rico 12 months after Maria made landfall as a powerful Category 4 storm.
Most of the island has regained some semblance of normality, and the fabled rush-hour traffic jams in the relatively affluent San Juan metropolitan area are in sight again, made worse by traffic lights working intermittently, if at all. perhaps they work, at some of the major intersections.
But appearances are deceiving. Stability—economic, political, and demographic, in daily life—remains scarce in Puerto Rico, a US territory of 3.3 million people, US citizens by birth, and survivors of one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history. Joined.
Nearly everyone today lives with some degree of the emotional and physical trauma that accompanied the massive devastation and its grueling aftermath: the weeks and months without power, reliable medical services, basic government services, and many of the comforts and protections of modern life to the they were used to.
For many, there is still a long way to go.
Power has been restored almost everywhere, an effort funded almost entirely by the federal government, but blackouts are a daily occurrence and the aging power grid remains vulnerable to disaster during a storm, even with minor failures. : A few months ago, much of the island was left in the dark for two days when a bulldozer damaged a transmission tower in the mountains. Most of the electricity generation and transmission system must be redesigned from scratch, say industry officials.
Many damaged malls and businesses have been unable to reopen, and the jobs they provided are up in the air. In the critical tourism sector, the situation is similar. Operators of some key resorts are speeding up repairs to open next high season, the second since Maria.
Federal recovery assistance for homeowners, renters and businesses has been patchy and slow in coming, while payments are often insufficient to complete needed repairs, something that is especially critical because few homeowners have insurance. Problems with property titles in Puerto Rico, which are often informal transfers of land—a legacy of the legal system from the Spanish colony—have prevented hundreds of thousands of households from receiving FEMA assistance to repair their damaged homes. . Of 1.1 million individual applications for assistance, FEMA says, almost a third, 332,000, were denied.
The Puerto Rican government reports that some 60,000 occupied homes remain roofless, covered by temporary blue tarps provided by FEMA, which have become a symbol of Maria's devastation and what many inside and outside the island perceive as a wholly inadequate response from the Trump administration. On a bridge, in a main artery of San Juan, there is a graffiti that says “FEMA is the problem”.
An analysis by McClatchy, the parent company of the Miami Herald, of public information on FEMA housing assistance found that as of June 1, Maria survivors in Puerto Rico received an average of $1,800 for repairs. By comparison, survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year received $9,127.
In many cases, homeowners and their advocates say, the money provided by FEMA was barely enough to replace appliances, furniture and clothing, much less make repairs that would allow people to continue living there safely, which is the purpose of the assistance. of emergency.
On an island where half the population lives below the federal poverty level, the meager savings of many homeowners and business owners went on the high cost of gasoline to power generators for months before repairs could even begin. Although FEMA provided generators, critics say the agency did not take into account the cost of fuel.
Overwhelmed by the scale of Maria's devastation and the need to restore basic infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, nearly all affected even before the storm, Puerto Rico's state and municipal governments have been unable to provide residents with much assistance. direct.
That led to the widespread view that Puerto Ricans were left on their own after Maria. Those who have managed to get started on the road to recovery say they have done so largely with the help of neighbors, community organizations, volunteer groups and donations, as well as significant support from private foundations in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, especially in United States, and a lot of sweat and suffering.
When the salt water level began to rise rapidly in Edna Velázquez's block house during María, the woman and her children ran outside to climb the stairs to the first floor, where relatives lived. Velazquez, who cannot swim, said she almost drowned when she tried to get out to reach the ladder and was up to her neck in water. As she recounted what had happened, her 79-year-old blind mother, Lidia M. Rodríguez, sitting next to her, began to cry.
By the time the storm surge finally receded days later, all of Velázquez and his family's belongings were either destroyed or washed away, including their vehicles. But FEMA turned down his request for assistance; Velázquez says she doesn't know why and, frustrated with the long wait, she dropped an appeal. At her place, she replaced furniture and did whatever repairs he could with the help of his neighbors and friends. The house still leaks when it rains.
“Between the same neighbors we help each other. We fought and pushed forward,” she said, adding that the trauma is still raw. “It doesn't feel like a year to me. One sees all that and one cries. Sometimes I look at the sea and it makes me panic. But we are alive to tell the tale and for the world to see."
Criticism of the federal response to Maria has been strangely agreed upon by two prominent rival Puerto Rican politicians, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, an outspoken critic of Trump, and Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who has expressly refused to place blame. to Trump.
The issue is closely linked to the peculiar political landscape of the island as a Commonwealth, whose inhabitants, United States citizens, cannot vote for the president and do not have a voting representative before the federal Congress (Puerto Ricans automatically enjoy full right to vote if they move to any of the 50 continental states). The island's two main political parties, Rosselló's New Progressive Party and Cruz's Popular Democratic Party, are organized around the pursuit of statehood or preserving and improving Commonwealth status, respectively.
The two say that the nebulous status that now exists means that Puerto Ricans on the island are treated by Congress and the federal government as "second-class citizens," without the political power necessary to demand equal treatment. Both are Democrats, but Cruz has repeatedly criticized Rosselló for not standing up to Trump, saying he fears alienating the Republican majorities in Congress whose support would be needed to pass statehood.
“Aid in general to Puerto Rico is lower relative to other jurisdictions,” Rosselló said in an interview with the Miami Herald. "There's no doubt. It is a reality of our colonial condition and second-class citizenship.”
Rosselló called the recovery process “inexplicably slow” and added: “As long as we do not have the right to vote, we will not have the political power to ask for the appropriate resources, as Florida or Texas would do in similar circumstances.”
Cruz went further, calling the federal government "irresponsible, negligent and abusive" in the way it handled the response to Maria.
“We're nowhere near [where] we should be,” Cruz said in an interview with the Herald. “Aid has not reached Puerto Rico. People died because Donald Trump was negligent. The government of Puerto Rico and most of the political class turned a blind eye and helped Donald Trump get away with neglecting him. While people were dying, he was giving himself a 10 out of 10. This is going to haunt him forever.”
Cruz and other critics also attribute flaws in the federal response to what they say is racism by Trump and some members of his administration toward a largely poor, dark-skinned Puerto Rican population.
But Cruz praised the large amount of donations and support from ordinary Americans and private groups.
"We will always be grateful to the American people," he said. "They are fabulous people."
But Puerto Rico's problems after Maria are not limited to the consequences of an insufficient federal response or even the slow pace of reconstruction.
Even those with private insurance are facing big hurdles. Many insurers on the island and in the United States are denying claims, or processing them too slowly, critics say, leading to a wave of lawsuits. Billboards and radio ads highlight the services of attorneys specializing in challenging insurance claim denials, with some off-island even opening offices there to litigate cases.
Severe shortages of construction materials, contractors and workers have led to skyrocketing prices, further hurting reconstruction. That's because the island's construction industry shrunk significantly during a deep and prolonged economic recession that began a decade before Maria's arrival. Even those now willing to pay face delays of up to six months for the delivery of materials, which in most cases must be imported.
Meanwhile, the losses in human terms are almost incalculable.
Suicides have skyrocketed and mental health experts say cases of depression, diagnosed or undiagnosed, are probably at epidemic levels. The storm also accelerated the exodus, for economic reasons, of young people, separating families and accentuating a population collapse that has left Puerto Rico with an aging population, among them many sick and isolated people that the overwhelmed system of medical services and social services battle to serve.
In the death toll from Maria there were many older people in precarious conditions, a balance that became fully evident last month, when the Puerto Rican government revised its estimate of deaths attributed to the storm to 2,975, after months in which the balance official was only 64 deaths. Many died as the months-long blackouts idled home ventilators, hospitals and dialysis centers, which have not fully returned to normal. Some experts say the death toll may rise further as clinics and hospitals grapple with a long-standing shortage of doctors and nurses, which the storm has exacerbated.
Virtually bankrupt and with far fewer children to educate, the government has decided to close hundreds of under-enrolled public schools, a decision that has proven controversial.
Members of the state and municipal police forces have joined the exodus, where it is reported that the number of vacancies has increased significantly since María. Across the island, residents complain of fewer police patrols and more unanswered calls to authorities.
Many Puerto Ricans acknowledge that Maria left a population emotionally traumatized and anxious about uncertain prospects for a recovery that experts say could easily take a decade. Since the storm, more than one commentator has pointed out that Maria has forced introspection, revealing a family secret that many have not wanted to talk about: that Puerto Rican society is considerably unequal and dysfunctional, where perhaps a majority lives in poverty. , in conditions closer to those of underdeveloped countries than to those of the continental territory.
But federal officials insist they have not overlooked Puerto Rico.
FEMA issued a report in July acknowledging that it was unprepared for the double whammy of Hurricane Irma and the far more devastating Maria over Puerto Rico, which made landfall after much of Houston was flooded and wildfires destroyed entire communities in California. A few weeks ago, a full government Accountability Office (GAO) audit concluded that FEMA did what it should in previous disasters, but failed to anticipate the extensive and severe damage from Maria, and was overwhelmed when it came time to respond to that calamity.
But FEMA says it has accelerated its response to Maria. The agency last month announced an additional $110 million for the island's power utility and its recovery and rebuilding headquarters. That brings the total money already spent or promised in response to Hurricane Maria to $3,400 billion in public funds, money that Puerto Rican leaders acknowledge has begun to revive the island's economy.
And there is more money on the way.
Congress has approved deliveries of almost $20,000 million to Puerto Rico by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that will be used for the reconstruction of homes and businesses, as well as improvements and modernization of the electrical network and other infrastructure, in particular projects that help the island better weather storms in the future. That could include elevating homes and buildings above storm surge level, buying properties in vulnerable spots or restoring wetlands to protect coastal development, said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.
In late July, HUD approved a Puerto Rico government plan for the first $1,500 billion, which will fund a program to give homeowners a maximum of $48,000 each to repair damaged homes, and a maximum of $120,000 to rebuild destroyed homes. About $10 million will be allocated for rental housing assistance, $145 million to revitalize businesses, and $100 million to repair damaged infrastructure.
Although it is one of the largest approved disaster relief packages in HUD history, it falls short of the $94,000 billion that Gov. Rosselló's administration estimates is needed for a full rebuild and to modernize the island's decrepit and antiquated infrastructure.
It is not yet clear when the money allocated to those who need it most will begin to arrive, or what process will be put in place to review applications. The rules are currently being drafted, but verification and management will remain in the hands of the Puerto Rican government, Sullivan said.
But the spokesman acknowledged that "after all this investment there will still be unresolved needs."
In Punta Santiago, this additional assistance will not come quickly enough for its approximately 5,200 residents.
The pier that once attracted many tourists and beachgoers on the weekends is a disaster, and the return of the visitors the community depended on remains more hope than reality. Estimates of repairs to the bridge, which had been recently renovated, exceed $1 million, money that the Humacao municipality does not have, said Félix Fontánez López, project manager for PECES, a community organization that has been the backbone of the efforts. recovery locations.
In the badly damaged strip mall a few miles away, where many neighbors worked, only one Walmart has reopened. The nearby Sam's Club, which Maria seriously damaged, closed for good.
Of the dozens of boat launch ramps owned by the local fishermen's association, only one remains functional, because the boats were badly damaged by Maria's storm surge. The 13 remaining fishermen — two died of medical complications after Maria and another left because the storm destroyed his home — haven't been able to catch much, said association president Antonio “Tony” Torres Torres. The fishermen need 21 engines in good condition to resume their work.
Most of the area's 13 hammocks, rustic roadside eateries that used to draw a lot of people on weekends, were razed by Maria, Fontánez López said. Popular rental cabins at the nearby public beach park were also affected and remain closed. The Punta Santiago basketball court, which has lost its roof, is hardly used.
And while some neighbors have received significant assistance from FEMA, Fontánez López said, they don't cover the cost of roof repairs, a critical need. But despite the difficult situation in Punta Santiago, they would be much worse off without the flood of private assistance, he said.
PECES, an acronym linked to the community's fishing roots, donated $2 million in construction materials, such as strong aluminum doors and windows, as well as funds to help those affected to repair their homes and businesses, including hammocks, some of which have reopened. Much of the repairs have been carried out by volunteers, particularly ex-military groups from the island and the mainland, he said.
Among the people whom PECES has helped: Chegüi, owner of Amarillo. The group gave him the stove he is using now, after he was denied a low-interest small business loan because he couldn't prove he had the ability to repay it. He still owes money on a private loan he took out to buy a freezer for the kiosk.
To continue working, she bought a freezer with credit from a local store, which she keeps at home. He also had to juggle to continue living in her house. He and his partner received just $1,000 from FEMA to cover the cost of their lost belongings, including all their clothing, furniture and appliances. The woman got a low-interest loan from the government to replace the appliances, Chegüi said, but he had to do the carpentry work himself and pay for the materials to repair the structural damage to the house.
But the kiosk has no remedy. He rented the structure from its owners, but was unable to rebuild it because it is on a public beach, Chegüi said.
PECES is also installing solar panels in 25 homes of people with medical needs who need respirators or other equipment 24 hours a day.
But the group is running out of money and materials, Fontánez López said.
At the association's modest waterfront headquarters, FEMA crews painted a picnic area, storage structures and a fish market, but not much else, Torres Torres complained. The $14,000 to replace the roof of the picnic area came from local donations, while association members managed to repair and reopen the picnic area and market without government help, he said.
For several months after Maria, battery manufacturer Interstate Battery donated generators and food for 1,000 people, then began making regular water deliveries, and has quietly maintained its support, Fontánez López said. A local company donated hundreds of mattresses to neighbors, Torres Torres said.
In the streets of the town, lined with block houses, there are numerous unrepaired houses littered with rubble. Some were abandoned simply because many left after the storm, neighbors say. Although the electrical service in Punta Santiago was restored after seven months, the public lighting is still not working, so on moonless nights the roads are totally dark. When darkness falls, the depression that has affected so many since the passing of Maria comes to the fore.
“This is the mouth of the lion here,” said Velázquez, the woman from Punta Santiago who lives with her blind mother. To alleviate the situation, the woman installed motion-activated solar lights on the front of the house.
“Everyone here has suffered,” said Torres Torres, the president of the fishermen's association, with watery eyes. “Afternoon arrives, as there are no lights, and one falls in the same”.
Maria changed everything, even the seabed. Coral reefs and seagrass areas where fishermen caught snapper, snails and lobsters were covered by sand and mud, and in some places by electrical effects and debris carried by storm surge water, Torres Torres said. . That means the only members of the association who go fishing these days, three divers, must go further and deeper, unprotected in dangerous waters, and even then they don't catch much, he explained.
To compensate, Torres Torres, a former part-time fisherman and retired government employee, works nights as a security guard. He spent $4,900 on fuel for a generator he kept running in his house the eight months the family was without power, which wiped out his savings. Torres Torres is visibly shaken when he remembers that his teenage daughter almost drowned when the storm surge Maria reached the house, and he wonders how she was able to bear all this.
“It was hard losing everything. This has been traumatic. This was very painful. This damaged families, families were separated. One tears up. This changed the life of Puerto Rico. But we have the faith that although it will take time, especially the economy, but we are moving forward”, he said.
“But let me tell you, Puerto Rico deserves an award. Those of us who stayed here deserve a very big prize.”
This special report was produced with the support of The Rockefeller Foundation.