In late August, a team of New York Times journalists visited Punta Santiago, a small town in southeast Puerto Rico near where Hurricane Maria made landfall. They documented the damage that remains from the storm in more than 150 homes. People here have waited months for repairs with little relief. A year later, in house after house, it looks like the hurricane just hit.
PUNTA SANTIAGO, P.R. — When it rains, Maritza Cruz Sánchez springs into a well-rehearsed, 30-minute ritual: She climbs a ladder to where her roof used to be and sucks on a hose to siphon puddles from the plastic tarp suspended over her house.
The tarp is held aloft by a few thin wooden posts, which have begun to warp and now seem almost certain to collapse. The temporary contraption that shelters Ms. Cruz and what little she still owns has been in place since March.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave her $6,000 to replace waterlogged belongings, but nothing to help make her house habitable again.
“I am thankful for the little they gave me,” she said, “but thanks for nothing.”
A year ago, on Sept. 20, the deadliest storm to hit Puerto Rico in over 100 years slammed into the island’s southeast coast, just 14 miles south of where Ms. Cruz lives in Punta Santiago. The tourist and fishing town of 5,000 people bore a terrible share of Maria’s initial fury.
Almost 650 houses flooded with water from the sea; others were inundated by an overflowing lake, a river, and two ponds — and also raw sewage. Many homes lost walls and roofs in winds that reached 155 miles per hour when the storm made landfall.
An aerial photo of Punta Santiago’s handwritten, desperate “S.O.S.” plea, taken in the early days after the storm, circulated around the world. When the Puerto Rico government kicked off a recent public relations campaign to highlight a year of recovery, it did it here. A new sign in town reads: “Bienvenidos. #Covertheprogress.”
Times journalists visited 163 homes in two neighborhoods in Punta Santiago to cover what progress had been made in the last 12 months.
They found a community with signs of fresh paint and, in some of the middle-class parts of town, rebuilt rooms and new furniture.
But in neighborhoods where residents live on meager pensions and disability checks, there were gutted kitchens and electrical wires running randomly along unfinished walls. Roofs were covered with plywood or plastic, many near collapse. Some houses still had no running water. A number of families lived in single rooms in unfurnished houses, sleeping on the floor.
Leomida Uniel, 82, the walls of her house stained in black mold that gave her a lung infection, was sitting on her porch, sobbing. Gilberto Díaz and his wife, María Carrión, were bathing and washing dishes with the aid of a neighbor’s hose stuck through a window. Roberto Albino had an inch of water inside his house.
“They did a ‘magnificent job.’ President Trump says so himself,” Ms. Cruz said. “Have him come say that to my face.”
Punta Santiago’s story underscores how, even after years of responding to devastating storms, the federal government struggles to help get people back in functioning homes after a natural disaster. Residents told stories of FEMA claims denied and their appeals frustrated. Federal grants helped a bit but were not nearly enough to pay for repairs.
FEMA’s work in Puerto Rico was the longest sustained domestic airborne food and water mission in the nation’s history. The agency has never distributed more food or installed more generators.
And its effort to get people back in their homes was massive, too: The $1.6 billion the agency allocated for direct emergency home repairs will be one of the largest housing programs the federal government has ever attempted. FEMA spent another $1.4 billion on grants to homeowners to repair or rebuild their homes and help them pay for temporary lodging…