Abandoned by their country, residents refuse to accept the idea that they will never recover.
Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, about three-fourths of the houses in the Sierra Brava neighborhood of Salinas, Puerto Rico stand battered and empty. Some families left because their homes were rendered uninhabitable and they had no money to fix them. Others left because they lost their jobs. In responding to Maria, federal agencies had hired some local people, but just for a few months; meanwhile, many other jobs disappeared and have not come back.
Sierra Brava lies low along the south side of PR Route 3 in the shadow of Salinas City Hall. Go for a walk through its now largely silent streets, and one residence in particular will catch your eye. On a corner along Calle Abraham Peña, the neighborhood’s four-block-long main avenue, stands a small grey house trimmed in bright blue and topped by a blue plastic tarp. It is in even worse shape than some of the abandoned houses. But Wilma Miranda Ramos still calls it home.
The hurricane shifted Wilma’s ramshackle little box on its foundation, separating the front and rear halves and giving it a distinct sideways tilt. Thanks to waters that flooded down the nearby Río Nigua from the mountains on the day of the storm, the floors now undulate wildly and give underfoot. Large portions of the ceiling are gone, and blue light streams in through the tarp above. Water pours in with every rainfall.
Wilma explained that she’d been living there six years, but because the house was not hers, she could get no help with repairs. “Now I have a stitched-together roof,” she said, “but as I have nowhere to go I'm still here. Staying here in these conditions is not easy. But since I have my daughter and grandson of four years here with me, living here and not in the street is worth gold.”
Certain now that no federal help will be coming, Wilma said, “I hope my guardian angel arrives soon.”
In the summer of Maria, the region around Salinas had an unemployment rate that hovered between 15 and 20 percent and a poverty rate of 54%. The median household income in Salinas was a little over $16,000. The city was in economic decline, rendering it deeply vulnerable to devastation by any hurricane, and the monstrous Maria was not just any hurricane.
More than a century of U.S. colonial rule, culminating in a harsh federal plan to deal with the island’s debt to vulture capitalists, guaranteed that Maria’s destructive force would be multiplied by socioeconomic vulnerability. To make matters worse, federal disaster assistance to Puerto Ricans after Maria was much smaller and was doled out much more slowly than the assistance that went to Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma that same season.
Across Puerto Rico, according to the New York Times, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was responsible for awarding home-repair grants, rejected 58 percent of applications. When they did provide funds, the amount was often inadequate to restore a severely damaged house; the median grant was only $1,800, compared with about $9,127 in Texas after Harvey.
In Sierra Brava, only a lucky few managed to wrangle any home-restoration money out of FEMA. Roofs and the spaces where roofs used to be remain covered in blue tarp. The tap water is foul and undrinkable. Electricity was restored about four months after Maria, but with rates two to three times the cost of power on the mainland, people are falling farther and farther behind on their bills; as a result they now risk seeing their lights go out again, this time shut off by the power company.
Many houses in the neighborhood have been handed down within the same family for several generations, some going all the way back to Spanish rule. And that became many residents’ biggest problem. For almost a year after the storm, FEMA was approving repair funds only for those who could show proof of ownership, and many did not have sufficient documentation.
FEMA finally started accepting affidavits as proof of ownership last August but did not ensure that previously rejected homeowners were informed of the policy change. Anyway, by then, many had abandoned their ruined houses and moved away for good.
“It has just stayed the same way”
On a dead-end side street near Wilma’s home, another woman called us over to have a look at her house, a more substantial concrete structure with a vivid orange paint job and no roof. Throughout, jagged pieces of blue fabric hung from strands of rope above, as if in some ill-conceived art installation. The house was empty except for a stove and a refrigerator, and a couple of ruined mattresses.
The woman, Socorro Rolon, pointed to the shredded tarp. “This was given to me by the church, and I had to go look for some poles to hold it up, and me and a guy from the church put everything like this.” The tarp didn’t last long. “Everything got wet. My husband and I slept there on those old mattresses over there, and everything was wet, nothing could be saved.”
Socorro and her husband had taken refuge in Salinas’ emergency shelter during the hurricane. “When we returned from the shelter,” she said, “we found total destruction. So we went back to the shelter, but since my husband has had a stroke, we had to return to the house even though it was destroyed. We did what we could. The hurricane destroyed half the world over here. It took the street, and didn’t spare anyone.”
Maria survivors who received home-restoration money from FEMA could apply to a program called Tu Hogar Renace (Your Home Reborn), which sent crews to do repairs. Socorro and her husband received some FEMA money; she didn’t say how much. “So,” she said, “we signed up with Renace, and they came four times to check the house. I have a letter they sent, and it said the house couldn’t be fixed,” at least not for the amount of money they had. “It stayed like this, and we lived in it.” When life in a roofless house finally became unbearable, they rented a room in a neighbor’s house.
Tu Hogar Renace has received almost four thousand complaints about the quality or incompleteness of their work, and the Puerto Rican government has launched an investigation. But that won’t get Socorro out of her predicament. “So,” she said, “we have the house and a check that FEMA gave us, but they didn’t help anymore afterwards, and what we get from Social Security isn’t much. I get about $200 and he gets about $300 or so.”
Where they once lived for free in their own house, now, she said, “we are paying to live where we are because we cannot live on the street.”
In seeking help for home restoration, residents faced several obstacles. The closest FEMA office taking applications was in the city of Guayama, a half-hour drive east of Salinas. For car-less residents whose friends and neighbors had fled—and given the lack of a good public transportation system—that office might as well have been in Washington, DC. Those who could get themselves to Guayama found that application forms were in English, but at least the people in the office spoke Spanish.
Those calling the FEMA help line found non-Spanish-speaking employees on the other end. Residents could also apply online, but for four months after the hurricane, Sierra Brava had no electricity. Even if they got access to the Internet, senior citizens who had no family members nearby to help them were often stymied by the FEMA website. And for those who did get their applications submitted, the inspectors who came to check out their houses spoke only English; the documents they had to sign to receive compensation were also in English.
Waiting for FEMA . . .
Madeleine Flores Tenazoa, 30, had volunteered to be our guide and translator in Salinas. She is a kind of unofficial community organizer, deeply rooted in Sierra Brava. She showed us her grandmother’s house, which had been in her family for many decades. FEMA provided a paltry $400 to repair the home’s severely damaged roof and nothing to replace the contents of its flooded-out rooms.
Madeleine told us, “When they came, they asked, ‘Where is the furniture you lost? My grandma said it was all ruined, so it got hauled away. They said, ‘Well then we aren’t going to give you nothing, since we can’t see what you lost.’”
Her grandmother wasn’t the only one to have this problem, and word got around. In and around Salinas, we saw big curbside piles of ruined furniture and appliances, one bearing a hand-painted sign reading “No toque” (“Don’t touch”). Madeleine said that if city workers come now to remove the debris, “Those people say, ‘No, no, no! We are waiting for FEMA. They need to see what we lost!’ But come on, it’s been a year and a half. FEMA’s not coming.”
About a mile south of Sierra Brava is Playa de Salinas, the seafront area that Maria hit even harder than the central city. Riding through the area with Madeleine, we noticed an elderly woman sitting on a stack of concrete blocks in the dirt outside a small half-built house. She had a push broom with her and was shelling gandules—beans she’d plucked from the large bushes that grew nearby.
The woman, Fela Suren, called us over. She said she was “eighty something” years old. The house was being built for her by a local church, but the work was on pause until she or they could get more money together. Next to the unfinished house stood her longtime home, minus its roof and a couple of walls. It was clear that before Maria, it had been a larger, more attractive house than her new concrete-block one was going to be.
Most of Fela’s furniture and appliances sat exposed to the Caribbean sun and rain. A small, new section of roof covered only the kitchen area, which was now serving as Fela’s bedroom. The room was now open to the outdoors on one side. Her bed had big hardwood head- and foot-boards and was draped with mosquito netting. Out back, her well’s hand pump still produced water, but it was a milky yellow color.
Fela said she has no family in Salinas, but she has good neighbors. One of them cooks meals for her and brings her water to drink. She spends her days tidying up in and around her ruined house and the construction site. As Fela spoke, she was all smiles. At eighty-something, she seemed to be leaving the past in the past and looking to the future. But in that future, she declared, “I never want to see anything like that hurricane again.”
The story of recovery from a devastating hurricane like Maria will always be a long and painful one—but it has to begin somewhere. For many residents of Puerto Rico, that story still hasn’t started. Until something changes, their story is one of survival, not recovery. It isn’t a nice one, but they want every one of us to hear it.
As Madeleine urged in a parting comment, “People need to come here and see how we are trying to live.”
Stan Cox (@coxstan) and Paul Cox (@paul_cox) are the authors of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia (The New Press, 2016).