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Puerto Rico recovery status: Progress after Hurricane Maria is uneven across island

The fishing pier in Punta Santiago, Puerto Rico, was once the hub of local activity. Today, it sits in splinters, unfixed from Hurricane Maria. (Photo: Rick Jervis)
By Rick Jervis, USA Today PUNTA SANTIAGO, Puerto Rico – The fishing pier jutting off the beach in this small fishing community was once the hub of local activity. Today, it sits in splinters. Blue tarps cover rows of roofs on nearby concrete homes, and the beachside fish shack, which a year ago served fresh-caught fried snapper sandwiches, is shuttered. “It’s like the hurricane hit yesterday,” said Antonio Torres, head of the fishermen’s association. “Everything that was promised never arrived.” A year after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, federal disaster coordinators point to the billions of dollars in disaster relief funds and expertise that has spread through the island, helping to patch thousands of roofs, reopen businesses and restore power to all corners of the island. After Hurricane Maria, hundreds of Puerto Ricans with treatable ailments like bedsores and kidney problems died agonizing deaths after going without proper medical care. (Sept. 14) AP
Last month, President Donald Trump called recovery efforts in Puerto Rico an “incredible unsung success” and said it was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.” Places such as Punta Santiago, and nearby Humacao, which bore the brunt of the Category 4 storm when it roared ashore Sept. 20, 2017, underscore the uneven pace of recovery in Puerto Rico. While San Juan, Ponce and other large cities have seen a much quicker recovery, bolstered by federal funds and greater international focus, hundreds of residents in Punta Santiago still live in storm-battered homes and have relied largely on volunteer groups and local churches to help them pick up the pieces. “The recovery in Punta Santiago has been very, very slow,” said Alexandra Arroyo, a coordinator with Proyecto P.E.C.E.S., a nonprofit group. “These people still need help.” David Ortiz, head of the San Juan-based El Puente Puerto Rico, which helps overlooked communities recover from Maria, said besides the fact that federal disaster grants often aren’t enough to cover the cost of repairing a home, the exodus of teachers, police officers and other professionals since the storm has drained neighborhoods of vital services. “It’s a major crisis,” Ortiz said. “I don’t think throwing a whole bunch of money in a short period of time is the answer. There needs to be long-term planning in terms of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico.”
Antonio Torres, left, head of the fishermen's association in Punta Santiago, Puerto Rico, talks with Carlos Ayala, a volunteer with the nonprofit Foundation for Puerto Rico. Torres says recovery in Punta Santiago has come mostly at the hands of volunteers like Ayala. (Photo: Rick Jervis)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved more than 460,000 applications and more than $1.4 billion in direct individual and household assistance funds in Puerto Rico, marking one of the largest post-disaster efforts undertaken by the agency. More than 600,000 other applicants were denied because they didn’t have proper deeds to their homes – a widespread problem in Puerto Rico – or other factors, according to FEMA statistics. This year, the agency adjusted the requirements to ensure more applicants gain access to the funds, said Mike Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinator in Puerto Rico. The commonwealth government estimates it will take $139 billion, including $33 billion for housing, to rebuild Puerto Rico. “It’s a constant challenge,” Byrne said. “I have responsibilities to make sure we get assistance for every survivor. We also have a responsibility it’s done in a way that protects taxpayer investment here.” FEMA’s distribution of public assistance grants – used for cleaning up debris and repairing bridges, roads and municipal buildings – has been frustratingly slow, said Omar Marrero, executive director of the Puerto Rico Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office. As of Aug. 31, FEMA had dispersed about 45 percent of the funds – emergency money that is usually distributed within the first few months of a disaster, Marrero said. While public assistance dollars are still trickling out, communities can’t shift their focus to long-term rebuilding, such as repairing Punta Santiago’s pier, he said. “The entire process has been very burdensome,” he said. The slow federal response has been felt succinctly in Punta Santiago, a seaside community of about 5,000 people once populated by slaves that worked the cane fields in the nearby island of Vieques. The community has a rapidly growing elderly population, and nearly half of the households live at or below the poverty rate, according to Data USA, an online collection of government data. Storm surge from Hurricane Maria pushed more than a mile inland, bringing a mix of seawater and sewage into living rooms – 6 feet high in some places. In the wake of the storm, residents painted “S.O.S. We Need Water/Food” on a street. A photo of the sign went viral and drew widespread attention, including that of Beatriz Rossello, the first lady of Puerto Rico, who opened a recovery office in town. Torres, the fishermen association president, said he realized early on that help would come from the community, not the federal government. After Maria pushed 6 feet of storm surge into his home, he and his family relocated to a Catholic church, sleeping on mattresses and helping church leaders hand out hundreds of hot meals a day to residents. The storm dwindled his fellow fishermen’s fleet of boats from 15 to two, and the pier they used to launch their boats remains wrecked, forcing them to make perilous beach launches in a pounding surf that often leads to injuries, he said. Torres said FEMA denied his application. He works the graveyard shift as a security guard in nearby Humacao to make ends meet and scrape together enough money to fix his home, Torres said. Without the help of groups such as the nonprofit Foundation for Puerto Rico, which helps communities rebuild through bolstered tourism that has been active in the area, Punta Santiago would be far worse off, he said. “Any recovery here is thanks to these guys,” Torres said as Foundation for Puerto Rico volunteers shuttled in and out of the “pescaderia,” a gathering place for fishermen.
The fishermen of Punta Santiago once had 15 boats in their fleet. Today, after Hurricane Maria ravaged their seaside community, they have just two. (Photo: Rick Jervis)
Angelina Ruiz-Lambides’ first concern was the monkeys. Ruiz-Lambides oversees the research facility that monitors 1,800 free-ranging rhesus macaque monkeys living on Cayo Santiago, a short boat trip from the pier here. After confirming all the monkeys – astonishingly – had survived Maria, she shifted her focus to her staff and to the community at large. Research students across the USA who had studied the monkeys on Cayo Santiago started a GoFundMe page that raised $65,000 for Ruiz-Lambides and her staff and other private donations helped her clear debris and repair the trailer lab and other equipment destroyed on the island by the storm. She then redirected donations to the local community, helping nine residents rebuild homes. “It was entities or community efforts or the religious sector,” she said of the months-long recovery, “not necessarily government officials.” Arroyo of P.E.C.E.S. said her group helped 1,800 residents in Punta Santiago and surrounding communities appeal their FEMA applications after the agency denied their initial requests. The top reason for denials: lack of a proper deed to the house, she said. Applicants who did receive FEMA aid got widely varying amounts, from a few hundred dollars up to $15,000, even though their cases seemed identical, Arroyo said. Those who received the grants often discovered it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of repairs. Her group helped about 400 families close that gap through private donations, but much more is needed, she said. Residents continue living with water cascading into their living rooms during rainstorms while they wait for FEMA to process their appeals. “Anyone who believes that the federal government has done a great job in Puerto Rico, I invite them to visit Punta Santiago,” Arroyo said.