PONCE, PUERTO RICO—Squinting at the blistering sun, Jeanette Fontánez looks overheated and exasperated. “We can’t live in our houses because they’re cracked,” she tells The Daily Beast. “We need soap, mattresses, tents, water, supplies—a little bit of everything, because there’s a lot of us here.”
But as of Saturday afternoon, government officials and agencies had yet to arrive to where the 49-year-old Fontánez has sought refuge: In a public park within walking distance from her home, which she says is unsafe to be inside.
“We’ve been here since Tuesday,” says Fontánez, who was there with her 9-year-old daughter. Families are spread throughout the park, some set up near parked cars, other stationed under tarps.
Fontánez is one of an estimated 2,000 Puerto Ricans displaced by an unrelenting streak of earthquakes in the island’s southern region beginning Dec. 28 and culminating, at least so far, in Tuesday’s 6.4 magnitude event, followed by subsequent tremblors and then, on Sunday morning, an unexpected jump to 5.9. Electrical outages are widespread in the area. Some residents are also without water service.
Many families are living within sight of their rattled homes without stepping inside, much less sleeping in them. The constant shaking has compounded fears of being indoors even for those whose houses bear no noticeable ruptures. And the recently restored electricity departed again with Sunday morning’s quake.
Saturday, an LGBT-led caravan of volunteers arrived to serve meals and hand out water, sanitary wipes, diapers, and other supplies. It was only the second time donations were disbursed at the park, Fontánez says.
The supplies they have received may have been surplus items from well stocked shelters being supplied by Puerto Rican authorities, politicians, NGOs, and other groups. But little of that is so far making its way to smaller encampments, like the one in La Luna, says Fontánez.
Her appeal is echoed by the families of Barrio Macaná in Guayanilla, another hard-hit municipality, and one where more than 50 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The neighborhood is only about a mile from the downtown area, but many residents lack transportation, and physically, the hilly trek is challenging for a person carrying supplies.
These residents need the aid to come to them, says army veteran Diego Cruz, 59.
Cruz is among a group of about 10, comprised of immediate and extended family of separate homes who’ve banded together. This includes three minors, plus an 81-year-old man with a leg amputation whose dilapidated wheelchair badly needs replacing.
“If you’re going to help and you’re going to an encampment that you know is already being given supplies, everything they need, then I don't understand,” Cruz says. “What about the people outside that need things, like us? There are people who can't get down [there].”
(Representatives of the municipalities of Ponce and Guayanilla dd not return requests for comment for this story.)
One home among the group’s is especially unsound, Cruz notes, showing The Daily Beast a long, vertical split in the cement on the structure’s rear wall, and an apparently unsturdy foundation beneath. At night, the front area of the house—a shared patio between two homes —becomes one big outdoor bedroom, complete with makeshift beds of mattresses atop cinder blocks.
As noted in the mission statement of Maria Fund, a nonprofit created to cull funding specifically for local, grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria, it’s the “vulnerable communities” that “are too often underserved by relief agencies.” To offset this problem, donations to the overall fund are diffused to an island-wide network of collectives and groups — like La Brigada Solidaria del Oeste (Western Solidarity Brigade), various Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (Centers for Mutual Support), and others — that are more familiar with the needs of local populations.
Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, a nonprofit advocating for the legal rights of low-income communities, is another Maria Fund recipient. The group has organized a petition on Change.org calling on Governor Wanda Vazquez to provide free transportation to shelters and to establish more shelters in unaffected structures in the northern part of the island, away from the earthquake epicenters.
Executive Director Ariadna Godreau tells The Daily Beast that the government has not adequately addressing long-term displacement, and is repeating the same mistakes seen post-Maria.
“The government is preparing as if this is the normal state for refugees: portable bathrooms, portable beds,” she says. “Nobody’s thinking about how to solve the issue of temporary housing, nobody’s thinking about transitional housing. They are trying to make displacement the new normal for these people, who are entitled to housing.”
Issues around protocol — hygeine, sexual violence, and other risks — in the unofficial camps is another concern expressed by Godreau. Those camps are ultimately the government’s responsibility too, she says.
“The governor said yesterday at a press conference that people don’t want to move. But some people don’t want to move because they don’t have the alternative, or don’t have the transportation.”
Displaced Puerto Ricans post-Maria spent months in shelters and, Godreau says, were ultimately pressured out by FEMA and government authorities. “They told them you have two options: The shelters are closing… or you have to move to the U.S. That is forcibly displacing people,” she says.
If residents hoped the swarm of earthquakes was tapering off, Saturday’s 8:54 a.m. jolt, which was felt throughout the island, likely renewed anxieties about the duration of this already lengthy natural disaster. Aftershocks have continued since.
More than $18 billion in disaster relief funds allocated for Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, in which upwards of 4,000 people died (many of them post-storm), is still being withheld by the Trump administration.
Four deaths total—direct or indirect—have been reported so far in connection with the earthquakes. Low-income populations, the elderly, young children, and people with chronic illnesses and disabilities are most at risk after any natural disaster.
“We’re thankful, because if the cell phones weren't working, nobody would get here,” Cruz says. “Through phone calls and reaching out, that's how people have gotten here. We've had help from different people, but no help from the government.”