Puerto Rico recovery: roofless homes, closed schools, an island left to fend for itself

PUNTA SANTIAGO, Puerto Rico (En español)

The face of forgotten Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria could well be that of José Luis “Chegüi” Aponte Cruz, who lost his livelihood and everything in his home when the ferocious storm pushed the roiling sea a mile into this poor beachfront community, sweeping away much of what lay in its path.

Maria smashed apart the bright yellow concrete beach kiosk where people once came for Chegüi’s famed bacalaítos, or codfish fritters. The storm took his freezer, his fridge and his stove, his tables and chairs, all uninsured. A year later, denied loans or government aid to reopen in a food truck, he has — like much of Puerto Rico — barely begun to recover.

Once a week, on Sundays, he tows out a donated cooker and a tent to the beach to dole out fritters and pastelillos, a handmade pastry filled with local crab and fish, to the few loyal customers still coming out to what remains of the unsalvageable kiosk, just a couple of roofless walls. But it’s not the same.

“This was a family environment. This fulfilled me,” Chegüi said, his eyes watering as he recalled the busy years cooking at Kiosko El Amarillo while his two kids served customers at the counter.

“I wanted to keep going, to buy a food truck, but...,” he said, stopping to wipe the tears from his face. “Bueno, estamos bregando. We’re dealing with it.”

Today, little in Punta Santiago is as it was before Maria swept across the entire length and width of the island, plunging it into darkness, damaging or destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and deepening a long-running economic and political crisis. To call recovery uneven and uncertain doesn’t begin to capture the true state of things in Puerto Rico 12 months after Maria came ashore as a potent Category 4 storm.

Most of the island has settled into a semblance of normalcy, and the legendary rush-hour traffic jams in the relatively prosperous San Juan metro area have returned, somewhat worsened because traffic signals at some busy intersections work only intermittently, if at all.

But appearances are deceptive. Stability of any kind — economic, political, demographic, in daily life — remains a scarce commodity in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.3 million people who are American citizens by birth, and also survivors of one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history.

Nearly every one of them lives today with some portion of the emotional and physical trauma that accompanied the storm’s far-reaching devastation and its grueling aftermath: the weeks and months without power, reliable healthcare, basic government services or many of the conveniences and safeguards of modern life to which they were accustomed.

For many, it’s far from over.

Power has been restored almost everywhere, an effort funded almost wholly by the federal government, but outages are common and the obsolete, patched-up electrical grid remains vulnerable to massive failure in the next storm and to simple mishaps: Power to a broad section of the island was knocked out for two days earlier this year when an excavator struck a power transmission tower in the mountains. Much of the electrical generation and transmission system must be redesigned and rebuilt from the ground up, power authority officials say.

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Many homes in the Caño Martín Peña communities in San Juan, Puerto Rico, still lack permanent roofs a year after Hurricane Maria. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Many damaged shopping centers and businesses have yet to reopen, and the jobs they provided hang in limbo. It’s a similar picture in the critical tourism industry. Operators of some key resorts are hastening repairs to reopen for the upcoming season, the second since Maria.

Federal recovery aid for homeowners, renters and businesses has been spotty and slow to arrive, while payouts are often insufficient to complete needed repairs, something that’s especially critical when few property owners carry insurance. Property-title issues arising from Puerto Rico’s system of often-informal land transfer — a legacy of the Spanish colonial legal system — have meanwhile disqualified thousands of households from receiving any Federal Emergency Management Agency aid to repair damaged homes. Out of 1.1 million applications for individual aid, FEMA says, nearly a third, or 332,000, were denied.

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The Puerto Rican government says about 60,000 occupied homes remain roofless, covered by the temporary blue FEMA tarps that have become a symbol of Maria’s devastation and what many on and off the island perceive as a woefully inadequate response by the administration of President Donald Trump. On a bridge over a main artery in San Juan, stenciled graffiti reads “FEMA es el problema.” FEMA is the problem.

An analysis by Miami Herald parent McClatchy of public data for FEMA’s housing assistance program found that, as of June 1, Maria survivors in Puerto Rico received an average of $1,800 for repair assistance. In contrast, survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year got $9,127.

In many if not most cases, advocates and homeowners say, FEMA grants were hardly enough to replace lost appliances, furnishings and clothing, much less to make repairs sufficient to allow people to remain living safely at home, the purpose of the emergency aid.

On an island where half the population lives under the federal poverty level, many homeowners’ and merchants’ meager savings were exhausted by the high cost of running gasoline generators for months before they could even tackle renovations. Though FEMA did provide generators, critics say the agency did not account for the cost of fuel.

Overwhelmed by the scope of Maria’s devastation and the need to restore basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and all but broke even before the storm, Puerto Rico’s state and municipal governments have been unable to provide residents much direct relief.

That’s led to a widespread sense among many on the island that Puerto Ricans have been largely left to fend for themselves after Maria. Those who have managed to begin a path to recovery say they have done so in large part with help from neighbors, community organizations, squads of volunteers and donations and other significant support from private foundations in Puerto Rico and outside the island, especially from the rest of the United States — and with lots of sweat and suffering.

When seawater began to rise rapidly inside Edna Velázquez’s concrete-block Punta Santiago home during Maria’s long onslaught, she and her children scrambled outside to reach an exterior staircase leading to a second story occupied by relatives. Velázquez, who can’t swim, said she nearly drowned when she stepped off the back stoop into water up to her neck. As she recounted the tale, her blind 79-year-old mother, Lidia M. Rodríguez, sitting beside her, began to sob audibly.

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The popular beachfront eatery “Kiosko El Amarillo” in Punta Santiago, Humacao, was destroyed after Hurricane Maria made its way through Puerto Rico last year. Owner José Luis Aponte Cruz is now operating temporarily under a tent in a parking lot. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

By the time the storm surge finally and fully receded days later, everything Velázquez and her family owned was destroyed or washed away, including cars. But FEMA denied her application for aid; Velázquez says she doesn’t know the reason and, frustrated with a long delay, gave up an appeal. Instead, she replaced furnishings and made what repairs she could with help from neighbors and friends. The damaged home still leaks when it rains.

“All the neighbors, we helped one another. We fought together and we got ahead,” she said, adding that the trauma is still fresh. “It doesn’t seem like a year ago. I see all this and cry. Sometimes I look at the sea and I feel panic. But we’re alive to tell the story, and for the world to see.”

Criticism of the federal response to Maria has been a rare point of agreement among two leading and rival Puerto Rican politicians, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, an outspoken Trump critic, and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has expressly declined to lay the blame on Trump.

The issue is closely bound up with the island’s peculiar political landscape as a U.S. commonwealth whose U.S. citizen residents cannot vote for president and have no voting representative in Congress (Puerto Ricans automatically enjoy full U.S. voting rights if they move to one of the 50 states). The two principal political parties on the island, Rosselló’s New Progressive Party and Cruz’s Popular Democratic Party, are organized around espousing statehood or preserving but enhancing the island’s commonwealth status without full statehood, respectively.

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Lidia M. Rodríguez, 79, who is blind, was trapped in her home in Punta Santiago, Humacao, by rising seawater during Hurricane Maria. A year later, Rodríguez lives with her family as they try to rebuild their home. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Both contend that the current nebulous status means Puerto Ricans on the island are treated by Congress and the U.S. administration as “second-class citizens” who lack the political clout to demand equal treatment. Both are Democrats, but Cruz has repeatedly dinged Rosselló for not taking on Trump, saying he’s afraid of alienating GOP majorities in Congress whose support would be necessary for approval of statehood.

“The aid to Puerto Rico in general has been inferior relative to other jurisdictions,” Rosselló said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “There is no doubt about that. It’s a reality of our colonial condition and second-class citizenship.”

Rosselló called the recovery process “inexplicably slow” and added: “As long as we are disenfranchised, we will not have the political power to ask for the appropriate resources, as would a Florida or Texas in similar circumstances.”

Cruz went further, calling the federal government “irresponsible, negligent and abusive” in its handling of the response to Maria.

“We’re nowhere near to being where we should be,” Cruz said in an interview with the Herald. “The aid has not gotten to Puerto Rico. People died because Donald Trump was negligent. The Puerto Rico government and most of the political class looked the other way and helped Donald Trump get away with his negligence. While people were dying, he was giving himself a 10 out of 10. This will follow him forever.”

Cruz and other critics also attribute failures in the federal response to what they say is bigotry directed to a mostly brown, poor Puerto Rican population by Trump and some members of his administration.

But Cruz praised the outpouring of donations and support from ordinary Americans and private groups.

“We will always be grateful to the American people,” she said. “They rock.”

Puerto Rico’s post-Maria problems, though, aren’t limited to the consequences of an insufficient federal response, or even the sluggish pace of rebuilding.

Even those with private insurance are running into significant obstacles. Many island- and U.S.-based insurers are declining or slow-walking claims, critics say, producing a wave of legal battles. Billboards and radio spots push the services of attorneys who specialize in challenging insurance claim denials, including some from outside who have opened offices on the island to pursue cases.

Severe shortages of construction materials, contractors and workers have led to skyrocketing prices and further hindered reconstruction. That’s because the island’s construction industry shrank dramatically during a deep and prolonged economic recession that predated Maria by a decade. Even those now ready to pay face waits of up to six months for delivery of materials, most of which must be imported into the island.

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Lidia M. Rodríguez, 79, who is blind, was trapped in her home in Punta Santiago, Humacao, by rising seawater during Hurricane Maria. Edna Velázquez, Rodríguez’s daughter, says the trauma is still fresh. “It doesn’t seem like a year ago. ... Sometimes I look at the sea and I feel panic. But we’re alive to tell the story, and for the world to see.” MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

The human toll, meanwhile, has been nearly incalculable.

Suicide rates have jumped, and mental-health experts say cases of depression, diagnosed and not, are likely at epidemic levels. The storm also quickened an economic exodus of younger people from the island, splitting families and accentuating a demographic collapse that has left Puerto Rico with an aging population, including a growing segment of infirm and isolated elderly people that the island’s strained healthcare and social services systems struggle to help.

Those at-risk seniors contributed heavily to Hurricane Maria’s death tally, the full extent of which became evident only last month, when the Puerto Rican government revised its estimate of deaths attributed to the storm sharply upward to 2,975, after months of keeping the official number at just 64. Many died when power outages lasting for months shut down home respirators, hospitals and dialysis centers — not all of which are fully operational yet. Some experts say the toll may still rise as clinics and hospitals deal with a long-standing shortage of doctors and nurses that the storm has exacerbated.

Virtually bankrupt and with many fewer children to educate, the government is controversially closing hundreds of underused public schools.

Joining the exodus: members of Puerto Rico’s state and San Juan’s municipal police forces, where vacancies are reported to have risen significantly since Maria. Across the island, residents complain of fewer police patrols and unanswered calls for service.

Many Puerto Ricans acknowledge that Maria left in its destructive wake a population that is emotionally traumatized and anxious over the uncertain prospects for a recovery that experts say could easily take a decade. Since the storm, more than one commentator has noted that Maria has forced a reckoning, lifting a lid on a family secret that even many Puerto Ricans kept from themselves: that theirs is a sharply unequal, dysfunctional society where perhaps a majority live in poverty amid conditions closer to those of underdeveloped countries than mainstream America.

“We’re talking about a fundamentally poor island, with a tremendous inequality problem and a government that has its hands tied,” said Benjamín Torres Gotay, deputy editor and columnist at El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper. “People are very uncomfortable with that theme of poverty in Puerto Rico. We are under a colonial fantasy that we’re a territory of the richest country in the world. But in Puerto Rico there were many with almost nothing, but that almost nothing they have lost.”

Federal officials insist, though, that Puerto Rico has hardly been overlooked.

FEMA issued a report in July conceding it was unprepared for the double-whammy effects of Hurricane Irma and the far more devastating Maria on Puerto Rico, which came after Hurricane Harvey flooded a broad swath of Houston and wildfires destroyed entire communities in California. Earlier this month, a massive performance audit report by the federal Government Accountability Office concluded that FEMA did its job in the earlier disasters, but failed to anticipate the extensive and intense damage from Maria, and was overwhelmed when it came time to respond to that calamity.

But FEMA says it has now markedly ratcheted up its response to Maria. The agency last month announced an additional $110 million in aid grants to the island’s troubled power authority and its central office for recovery and reconstruction. That brought the total it has spent or pledged in response to Hurricane Maria to $1.3 billion in aid to individuals and $3.4 billion in public grants — money that island leaders concede has begun to restart Puerto Rico’s stalled economy.

Far more relief money is coming.

Congress has approved nearly $20 billion in grants to Puerto Rico from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that are earmarked for housing and business reconstruction and upgrades and modernization of the fragile electrical grid and other infrastructure, in particular projects to help the island better withstand future storms. That could include raising homes or buildings above storm-surge levels, buying out properties in vulnerable spots or restoring wetlands to protect shoreline development, said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.

In late July, HUD approved a Puerto Rico government plan for the first $1.5 billion, which will fund a program to provide homeowners up to $48,000 each in grants to repair damaged houses and up to $120,000 to rebuild destroyed homes. About $10 million will go to rental assistance, $145 million to revitalize businesses and $100 million toward the repair of damaged infrastructure.

Though it’s one of the largest single HUD disaster-aid packages ever approved, the amount falls short of the $94 billion the Rosselló administration estimates is needed for a full reconstruction and to bring the island’s decrepit and antiquated infrastructure up to par.

It’s still unclear when the allocated money will begin to flow to those who need it the most, or what the procedures will be to review applications. Regulations are being drafted, but the vetting and management will fall to the Puerto Rican government, Sullivan said.

“After all this money, there still will be unmet needs,” Sullivan acknowledged.

In Punta Santiago, additional aid can’t arrive soon enough for its 5,200 or so residents.

The fishing pier that once attracted a weekend throng of beachgoers and tourists is a wreck, and the return of cash-spending visitors on which the community depended remains more hope than reality. Repair estimates for the pier, which had been renovated just two years before Maria, run well over $1 million, money the municipality of Humacao doesn’t have, said Félix Fontánez López, project manager at PECES, a community organization that has been the backbone of local recovery efforts.

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Manuel Pérez, an employee at a beauty shop in Utuado, Puerto Rico, hangs a sign on Aug. 22, 2018. Pérez’s community is still recovering from the damage Hurricane Maria caused a year ago. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

At the heavily damaged mall a few miles down the road where many residents worked, only a Walmart has managed to reopen. The nearby Sam’s Club, heavily damaged by Maria, closed permanently.

All but one of the dozen launches belonging to the local working fishermen’s association, another local mainstay, are grounded, the boats having been swamped by storm waters that drowned their engines and electrical systems. The 13 fishermen who remain — two died from health complications after Maria and another left after his home was destroyed — are unable to do much fishing, said association president Antonio “Tony” Torres Torres. They need 21 functional engines to resume work.

Most of the 13 local chinchorros, rustic roadside watering holes serving fritters and also a draw for weekend visitors, were wiped out by Maria, Fontánez López said. The popular rental cabanas at the nearby public beach park were also ruined and remain shuttered. The Punta Santiago basketball court sits barely used without its roof.

And while a few residents have received substantial FEMA aid, Fontánez López said, most grants received won’t cover the cost of roof repairs, a critical need. As tough as things are in Punta Santiago, they would be far worse if not for an avalanche of private aid, he noted.

PECES, an acronym that spells out “fish” in a nod to the community’s fishing roots, stepped in with $2 million worth of donated construction materials like hurricane- and flood-resistant aluminum doors and windows and foundation grants to help locals repair their homes and businesses, including the chinchorros, some of which have reopened. Much of the repair work was done by volunteers, in particular squads of military veterans from the island and mainland, he said.

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Antonio “Tony” Torres Torres, president of the Punta Santiago, Humacao, fishermen’s association, oversees the group’s beachfront cafe and fish market. The group’s members need 21 new boat engines to resume work. “Everyone here has suffered,” he says. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Among those PECES helped: Kiosko el Amarillo owner Chegüi, as everyone in town knows him. The group gave him the cooker he now uses after he was denied a low-interest small-business loan because he could not show he could pay it back. He still also owes money on a private loan he took out to buy a freezer for the kiosk business before Maria.

To keep working, he bought a new freezer, which he keeps at home, on credit at a local store. He’s also had to improvise to stay in his home. He and his partner got just $1,000 from FEMA to cover the cost of lost belongings, including all their clothes, furnishings and appliances. She did get a low-interest government loan to replace the appliances, Chegüi said, but he’s had to do his own carpentry work and pay for materials to repair structural damage to the house.

The kiosk, though, is hopeless. He rented the structure from private owners, but it was grandfathered in and can’t be rebuilt because it’s on a public beach, Chegüi said.

PECES is also placing solar panels on 25 homes of medically needy people dependent on respirators or other equipment that needs to run 24/7.

But the group’s money and materials are running out, Fontánez López said.

At the fishermen’s association’s modest beachfront headquarters, FEMA crews repainted a snack bar, storage sheds and a fish market, but did little else, Torres Torres complained. The $14,000 to replace the destroyed roof over the snack bar’s terrace came from local donations, while association members managed to get the snack bar and market repaired and opened with no government help, he said.

For months after Maria, Interstate Battery donated generators and food for 1,000 people, then undertook regular water deliveries, and has quietly continued its support, Fontánez López said. A local company donated hundreds of mattresses to residents, Torres Torres said.

Residential streets of tightly packed concrete houses are dotted with unrepaired, debris-filled homes. Some were abandoned because many simply left after the storm, residents say. Though power to Punta Santiago was restored after seven months, streetlights were not, so on moonless nights the streets are pitch-black. When darkness descends, so does the depression that has afflicted many since Maria.

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José Luis Aponte Cruz, 52, wipes a tear as he walks through the ruins of his beachside eatery “Kiosko El Amarillo” in the Punta Santiago neighborhood of Humacao, Puerto Rico. His business was destroyed last year in Hurricane Maria. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

“Around here we call it boca de lobos,” said Velázquez, the Punta Santiago resident living with her blind mother, using a common expression meaning “total darkness.” To dispel the gloom, she has installed solar motion-activated lights outside the family home.

“Everyone here has suffered,” said fishermen’s association president Torres Torres, his eyes welling up. “Night falls, and because there are no streetlamps, you fall back into the same thing.”

Even the sea bottom was changed by Maria. The reefs and seagrass beds where the local fishermen caught snapper, conch and lobster were smothered with sand and silt and, in some places, appliances and debris washed out to sea after the storm surge receded, Torres Torres said. That means that the only association members going out these days, three divers, must go farther out into deeper, unprotected and thus more dangerous waters, and even then the catch is often meager, he said.

To make ends meet, Torres Torres, formerly a part-time fisherman and retired government worker, is working nights as a security guard. He spent $4,900 on fuel to run a generator at home for the eight months he and his family went without power, depleting his savings. A big man, he gets visibly upset as he recalls how his teenage daughter nearly drowned when the beachfront family home was swamped by Maria, and wonders how he’s managed to endure it all.

“It’s been hard losing everything. It’s been very painful. This has changed the life of Puerto Rico. This ruined families, separated families. Many people closed their businesses. It brings out the tears. We have faith that this may take a long time, especially for the economy to recover, but we’re moving forward,” he said.

“But let me tell you something. Puerto Rico deserves a prize. Those of us who stayed, we deserve a big prize.”

Herald staff writer Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this report.