They lost homes in Hurricane Maria, but didn’t have deeds. FEMA rejected their claims.
COMERÍO, Puerto Rico (En español)
After 38 years of working in Philadelphia, far from his tropical birthplace of Puerto Rico, Fernando Rivera Molina retired and, with his wife, moved back to his mountain hometown, fulfilling a dream. Thanks to Hurricane Maria, it’s turned into a torment that’s yet to end a year after the storm ravaged the island.
Like many others in this rural barrio outside the town of Comerío, smack in the heart of Puerto Rico’s central cordillera, Rivera Molina built a simple concrete-block and zinc-roof house himself, on a roadside lot he owns at the edge of a steep hillside.
After Maria’s eyewall barreled through Comerío, tearing off his roof and sending cascades of water through the house for hours, he desperately needed help fixing it up. But his application for disaster-relief aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was turned down. So was his subsequent appeal.
“I did not have the papers saying that I’m the owner,” said Rivera Molina, 60, shrugging sadly last month outside the house, which is still in disrepair and where he lived under a tarp for 11 months. “They denied me two times.”
Rivera Molina is only one of 332,000 Puerto Rican householders whose applications for FEMA help with repairs in the months after Maria have been denied, leaving many in precarious living conditions — often without roofs and in virtually uninhabitable homes — a full year after the storm.
The overriding reason: agency regulations and policies that require recipients of assistance to prove they own and occupy the damaged dwellings.
The FEMA requirements, which critics contend the agency has applied more strictly after Maria than previously, quickly ran into the peculiar realities of property ownership in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory whose legal code is a legacy of centuries of Spanish colonial rule and custom: Unless you have a mortgage or a condo, both of which only a minority of homeowners on the island do, there’s no need for a deed.
Making matters more complicated is a widespread inheritance custom, especially in rural areas, in which bequests of property are not recorded, but informally agreed on by family members, said Adi Martínez-Román, an attorney and executive director of the Access to Justice Fund Foundation, a nonprofit group in the capital of San Juan that underwrites legal services for low-income people.
Because as many as half the dwellings on the island were built informally — without plans or permits — there is often not even a formal address, making it impossible for FEMA evaluators to match homes with utility bills, typically used to corroborate occupancy.
That means many legitimate homeowners have no way to satisfy FEMA’s requirements even when property has been in the family for generations, she said.
Even more confounding, at least to federal authorities, she said: An owner of a lot in Puerto Rico will often allow adult children to build separate homes on the property without subdividing it, or allow a son to build a separate addition or a second-story apartment atop a single-family home, without permits. That means the new structures, though individually owned, are not formally recorded in any way.
Since FEMA can grant aid to only one owner per property, that’s meant many legitimate claimants are left out while one family member receives monetary assistance.
FEMA’s strict hewing to the process has led to wildly disparate outcomes, Martínez-Román and others say. Some claimants have received generous packages that max out at around $30,000, while others in equivalent circumstances get a few hundred dollars to cover only lost personal belongings.
“The inconsistency has been great. It’s not what we were expecting,” Martínez-Román said.
Even when applicants file appeals, most are denied, she said. FEMA rules do allow the agency the flexibility to consider letters from applicants with “no formal title” to a property that lay out special circumstances. But the agency has been rejecting them, she said — sometimes because the signatures are not notarized, even though FEMA administrators say that’s not required.
One legal-aid group, Pro Bono, an offshoot of the Puerto Rico bar association, sent about 500 such letters to FEMA, only to have them returned for lack of notarization. Notarizing signatures is no simple matter in Puerto Rico, where notaries must be lawyers and the service can be expensive and difficult to arrange, especially for poor people in rural areas.
“Many people simply gave up,” Martínez-Román said. “But these people are owners. This has been our greatest pain.”
FEMA recently relented. After months of lobbying, complaints and meetings with Martínez-Román’s organization and other legal-aid groups, agency attorneys approved a new declaration form that allows applicants to simply assert ownership. In a further concession, the forms won’t need to be notarized.
But FEMA has not publicized it widely, Martínez-Román said. Her agency provided FEMA evaluators for Puerto Rico, based in Texas, an explanatory webinar in July, but no official agency memo went out to staff explaining it. And FEMA declined to notify affected people whose applications were denied.
“The answer was a rotund ‘No.’ But it can’t fall on us to inform all the people of Puerto Rico,” an exasperated Martínez-Román said.
Her fear is many will never learn about the second chance to request aid.
One consequence of the widespread rejections is that thousands of poor island residents like Rivera Molina have been left to make do with whatever they can scrape up, or dependent on charity. Like many others, Rivera Molina did not bother with many formalities, such as building permits or a property deed, documents he said no one had asked him for previously.
Rivera Molina said he had been living in the roofless house alone, because his ill wife could not take the primitive conditions and went to stay with family in Boston. In August, volunteers installed what appears to be a makeshift new roof of zinc sheets and wood rafters on the house, but Rivera Molina pointed out that they left a big gap between the roof and the top of the walls of the house. He’s concerned the opening will let in wind and water in the next storm and he could lose the roof again.
But he said he’s still grateful to finally have one over his head.
“They went and they left it like that, but I won’t complain, because it’s a blessing from God,” he said.
Just up the road a bit, though, Waldemar Rosado and his family have it even worse. Rosado, wife Yamaris Matos Agosto and their son, Matthew, 2, had to move out after Maria wrecked the home they had lived in since 2012. They are now crammed into a small, stifling bedroom in her mother’s house.
The family lived in a first-story home made of concrete and built on columns dug into the hillside, and his brother was upstairs in a separate, wooden addition built on the roof. After Maria blew the wood house apart, FEMA gave him assistance to relocate. He bought land nearby and is building a new house.
But FEMA denied aid to Rosado, 28, who works in a clothing factory in the adjacent municipality of Orocovis. He and his wife are not sure why, but say it may be because the house — where the family had just installed a new bathroom when the storm hit — may be unrepairable.
Because of damage to the rooftop property, rain regularly gushes into the first-floor home. A mango tree fell on a support beam during the storm, cracking it. There are other serious problems: Inspectors say the hillside on which the house sits may be unstable and giving way. Rosado was told by FEMA inspectors he needs a report from a geologist, but that only two do the work on the island and there’s a long wait.
Rosado also decided to have water service to the house cut off. Even though they were not living at home, they got a big water bill of $600 — another common complaint from Maria victims, who say government power and water authorities continued billing even when not providing service. That was reduced by half after an appeal, but Rosado still had to pay $300.
Like others denied direct aid by FEMA, the family turned to a federally funded program run by the Puerto Rican government’s housing agency and called Tu Hogar Renace — Your Home Reborn — that makes temporary repairs designed to help people stay at home until permanent renovations can be undertaken.
Tu Hogar, also funded by FEMA, has stepped in to help many who have been denied direct FEMA assistance, but some critics complain the work has been slapdash and the program has been the subject of complaints of contractor overcharges.
The program installed new kitchen cabinets and sink in Rosado’s home. But the kitchen ceiling has partially fallen in because of leaks that they worry will soak the new cabinets next.
”Everything is going to get damaged again,” he said.
Still farther up the mountain, Merry Pérez Colón is at her wit’s end. Four people, including her disabled husband and their daughter and grandchildren, are sharing the storm-damaged family home with her. The hurricane ripped part of the zinc roof off an addition at the back of the hillside concrete home. Plastic buckets on the floor in a rear bedroom catch the rainwater. Outside, the storm broke open the concrete beam and columns that support the rear of the house over the hillside, exposing the steel rebar beneath.
But they got no FEMA help. Like many, they don’t understand why, even though some neighbors got help. Her husband, José Rodríguez, gets a small Social Security check and she works in a window factory, but they still can’t afford to hire someone to make repairs without help, they said.
So Pérez Colón had no choice but to tackle repairs herself, with some help from her grown son. To raise money, the family sold three goats and a pig from a backyard menagerie that, unusually for Puerto Rico, includes geese and turkeys. She has been gradually buying concrete blocks and cement to patch and build a jerry-rigged support wall in the gap beneath the floor and the dirt surface of the hill where the damaged beam and column rest. She jokes that, at 51, she’s had to become a mason. But she said she’s been struggling to keep it together.
“I get help from who?” she asks sarcastically. “I can’t do this by myself.”
Many others on the island have little hope of FEMA aid because they do not own the land their homes sit on.
Because of a severe housing crunch going back decades, many homes in rural Puerto Rico were built illegally on private farmland or government land by squatters. Some may have ownership rights. Puerto Rico law grants such land invaders outright ownership if no one challenges their occupancy after 30 years. But few bother to file the required paperwork to formalize the title, Martínez-Román said.
That’s a problem even in San Juan, where some well-established neighborhoods and communities were built informally over decades. Among the largest are eight sprawling adjacent communities along the Caño de Martín Peña, a canal that snakes through the heart of the city.
The dense Caño communities are pockmarked by blue tarps where roofless residents are still awaiting assistance. They had one advantage other similar communities don’t: They are organized under a sophisticated umbrella group, Proyecto Enlace, which established a trust that now owns the land under many homes, though the structures themselves are owned individually.
That land trust has enabled Enlace to help 624 families apply for FEMA aid with evidence of ownership, said Estrella Santiago Pérez, an attorney for the group. But she said many have been rejected, and the reasons often are not clear.
“There are no clear criteria to know why they deny some and not others,” Santiago said. “Or you may have $40,000 in damages, and maybe they give you $4,000. Deal with it.”
Those denied FEMA aid for repairs are routinely offered loans — something Santiago said only angered people who could barely make ends meet before the storm — or relocation help, giving rise to fears that Maria could become a pretext for clearing out the informal communities, long a goal of some politicians.
“People went crazy,” she said.
The typical grant, Santiago noted, is not enough for a new roof, given that the cost of construction and materials has risen sharply in the storm’s aftermath, driven by high demand and scarce supply, so that even those lucky enough to qualify for FEMA aid may be unable to finish repairs.
What was a $10,00 roofing job is now around $15,000, she said — an increase roughly in line with industry estimates that put the rise in construction costs at 40 percent, said San Juan-based architect Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz, former president of the island builders’ association.
And those are the lucky ones.
In the Barriada Bitumul community at the Caño, Roberto Rivera Rosario, 75, complains that FEMA refused him aid outright despite severe damages. He and his wife, Herminia, ill with severe arthritis and diabetes, live on a $500 Social Security retirement check in a concrete-block house he built himself 20 years ago. He added a rooftop apartment to rent out to supplement their income, but Maria removed the zinc-sheet roof and tore apart the interior.
FEMA gave his tenant relocation aid, Rivera said. But evaluators told him he does not qualify for repair assistance because the rental was a business — never mind that every time it rained after the storm, water would run down the walls of his kitchen and bedroom below and down the stairs from the roofless apartment, covered by a tarp that failed to keep the home dry. Herminia fell into a deep depression.
“Do you know what it’s like to be asleep and to have water fall on you, and have to get up to stop the leak?” she asked.
Instead, Rivera said, he was offered a small-business loan. He scoffed at the idea, saying he could hardly afford to pay it back, especially without income from the upstairs.
“This is going to ruin the poor even more than they already are,” an agitated Rivera said, decrying the lack of government help. “This is an abuse. They don’t do anything. And the poor, screwed.”
Finally, just last month, Tu Hogar Renace installed a new zinc roof at Rivera’s home, stopping the leaks. But it does not appear to have anchors or hurricane straps and seems liable to fly away in the next storm. And he’s already spent his savings and still needs to install new electrical wiring and a new box before the apartment is usable.
“These have been some devastating months,” said Niria Bermúdez Zaccheus, an attorney with Enlace who has been working with Rivera and his wife. “The FEMA thing can’t stay this way. They don’t recognize the legal reality of our territory. It’s a matter of hurdle after hurdle, and people desist because they get tired.
“It’s a very arduous task. It’s been a year, and people are going around with PTSD.”
Like others, Álvarez-Díaz, the architect, is critical of FEMA’s rigid approach. But he said promised grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has earmarked $20 billion for housing and infrastructure reconstruction on the island, have the potential of helping Puerto Rico emerge from catastrophe in much better shape than before. He praised HUD officials for grasping the island’s particular needs.
“FEMA is not HUD,” he said. “The U.S. government realized Puerto Rico is a challenge for them. FEMA will not give you money for a house you built yourself without permits. People don’t understand that. That’s where HUD comes in. They realize the people in Puerto Rico will fall through the cracks. FEMA has not proven to be very successful. HUD is saying, ‘We are willing to put in the dollars to do it right.’ “
But many fear the same title and property issues that have kept many from getting FEMA aid could arise again when it’s time for HUD money to be spent.
That is something Puerto Rico will have to work out, HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said.
“Puerto Rico has some unique challenges,” he said. ”Ownership needs to be established in order to determine the person seeking the funding is indeed the homeowner. That’s not often clear in Puerto Rico. We’ve had people here go down there to try to unwind this ball of yarn.
“You can’t even use GPS to pinpoint properties or addresses sometimes. Just finding the homes is more of a challenge than it is on the mainland. It is the commonwealth [of Puerto Rico] that is going to have to sort out these challenges.”
Some advocates on the island believe it’s time to overhaul the laws governing property titles, but that will take time. In the meantime, grassroots organizations like the foundation Martínez-Román leads have expanded the effort to help with FEMA appeals into a broader campaign to assist owners in obtaining formal property titles, supported by grants from national and international groups such as Unidos por Puerto Rico and the Ford Foundation, among others.
So far, though, it’s proven to be an unexpectedly difficult and time-consuming undertaking that requires paying attorneys to do extensive documentation of claims and clearing of potential counterclaims. Of 1,700 people who have requested such assistance, she said, the groups working on the cases have resolved only a fraction over several months. And that, she notes, is but a portion of the need.
“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people,” she said, noting that would take far more resources than are available.
In the beachside Playita Cortada sector of Santa Isabel, on the south coast of Puerto Rico, Guillermo José Torres is about ready to give up. More than 20 houses belonging to his neighbors were swept away by the storm surge and wind. They left, along with others who were denied FEMA aid, he said.
If he could, he would sell his beachfront house now and leave for good like his neighbors, to join his daughter, a nurse, in Florida. But he and his wife, Juana Rodríguez Torres, can’t afford to.
“A lot of people left. It’s not the same as before,” Rodríguez said.
FEMA gave them $500, they said, not even enough to replace their furnishings, appliances and clothes — all of it lost when the sea invaded the house, leaving behind a foot of sand and sludge. He used the money to buy a TV and a microwave and someone gave them an old stove.
And forget replacing the roof, which Maria peeled off. He’s patched it up with zinc sheets he and his friends picked up off the ground after the storm, but several are pockmarked with rust holes and let the rain in. Local suppliers are charging $50 a sheet for new ones, double the old price, he said.
He’s puzzled why his next-door neighbor got $4,200 from FEMA. That house stands tidily fixed up.
Electrical outages were a common occurrence until mid-August, when the power authority finally replaced a faulty electrical transformer nearby. But regular power surges fried his TV, microwave and fridge.
To add insult to injury, his car was crushed by a falling tree while he and his wife waited out the storm at nearby shelter. But his insurance company would not cover it, citing a hurricane exemption.
Torres, 60, said he is willing and able to work. He is a part-time fisherman, a carpenter, and has truck and heavy-equipment operator licenses. But work has dried up, he said, especially for someone his age.
Torres takes out his guitar and sings a mournful décima, a Puerto Rican folk song form, which he composed to tell the story of Maria’s assault. But his cheer turns to something else when he considers his present plight.
“You feel forgotten and you feel frustrated.
“You can’t live here anymore.”