Blue rooftops made of plastic tarps dot Puerto Rico’s landscape. They are a constant, very painful reminder to residents that in the eyes of the Trump government they just aren’t equal to their fellow U.S. citizens. Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico all suffered devastating hurricanes last year. But only Puerto Rico still has all those blue tarp “roofs.” Only Puerto Rico lost thousands of people as a result of the tragedy.
It’s been a year since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. More than 1.2 million homes were severely damaged or destroyed. Even today, more than half a million survivors remain unable to repair or rebuild thanks to another kind of storm — one made of red tape and neglect.
On the ground in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was at a standstill for months. Much of the island had no communications — no cellphone, no internet, no transportation. People were unable to pay bills, mortgages — there were not even ATMs for cash. Initially there were no FEMA centers where people could sign up.
The agency’s answer? It gave out a phone number and an internet address on local radio stations. Call? Email? What were they thinking?
The shortfall of cash and and conscience has continued.
“We’ve requested $33 billion dollars for housing repairs,” Governor Ricardo Rossello told The Daily Beast. “We’re nowhere near having gotten that.”
“The feeling that we do not count is overwhelmingly felt here,” says resident Kelly Lennon, who moved to Puerto Rico 30 years ago.
FEMA has approved $1.3 billion for housing assistance under its Individual Assistance Program, the agency told The Daily Beast. FEMA said it received over 1.2 million registrations and approved 462,000 of them to date, for a total of $1.2 billion. Pretty much the entire budget.
So, what about the remaining 663,000 survivors still in FEMA’s hands waiting for urgent housing assistance? There’s $0.1 billion ($100 million) left for them, and they have to navigate a multi-layered bureaucracy that shuttles applicants through a circular system of “options” but hands out very little money.
At its center is the Small Business Administration.
FEMA can deny a claim or it can refer it to the SBA, where the application for help becomes an application for a low-interest disaster loan. That’s what’s been happening. SBA awards the disaster loans based on the damage or loss incurred and the applicant’s ability to repay the loan.
FEMA spokesperson Denishe Smith told the Daily Beast on Monday that “485,000 [claims] were sent to the SBA.” Asked about their status, Smith said “we have no record of where those proceedings stand. That’s with SBA.”
Consider that, for the entire year, the SBA has approved disaster loans to only 52,200 homeowners, renters and small businesses.
Continuing to look at the grim arithmetic: what about the remaining 198,000? Smith said she did not have an update on their status.
If applicants don’t qualify, or don’t want to take out a loan, SBA sends them back to FEMA to see if other options are available. The last option is called Community Block Grants D (CBG), which are given for housing, capacity building, economic development.
“There’s so much red-tape,” said Lennon, “I’d rather go it alone.”
“Many claims have been rejected,” says Governor Rossello. FEMA denied his request for permanent housing assistance, something he had hoped to get even before the hurricane to improve housing for 43.5 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.37 million residents who live at or below the poverty line.
“We were told to get the money from CBG. We requested $33 billion dollars for housing repairs,” says Rossello, adding with some irony, “that we should get over the next 10 to 11 years.”
“There have been many strangle-holds,” says Rossello. “It’s hard to see where the money flows.”
A key problem was that housing crisis that existed before the storm hit. “A lot of houses were foreclosed. A lot of people didn’t have the titles to their homes.” says Rossello.
Another was Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt, a sword of Damocles hanging over federal assistance.
“Puerto Rico never came out of the recession in 2008, home buyers were going to get clobbered by huge interest rates,” says Salvatore Casale, a lawyer and professor at the University of Puerto Rico. “We paid off our loans with credit cards. It was a perfect storm.”
FEMA only began paying out individual claims last June. One might ask where the agency thought the more than one million displaced survivors would live for a year while waiting for funds to repair their homes?
Casale says FEMA has taken advantage of the way Puerto Ricans take care of each other. “People have moved in with friends, with relatives. That’s very beautiful, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get their homes back.”
President Donald Trump addresses these realities by denying them or ignoring them, even ridiculing the latest count of those who died as a result of the cascading disasters brought on by Hurricane Maria.
George Washington University, commissioned by Governor Rossello to conduct an independent survey, found that 2,975 people had perished. “When the president tweeted that the numbers had jumped ‘magically,’ I rejected that point blank,” Rossello tells us, adding, “I told the president I would gladly walk him through the steps that were taken. My advice to him was to send a message that would convey respect and empathy.” It fell on deaf ears.
For all these reasons, when Puerto Ricans hear Trump — the president of their country — praise relief efforts on the island as an “unsung success,” which he did the other day, their reaction is bitter beyond the bounds of irony.
“People were screaming for help and noone was around.” says Lennon.