RI Challenges FEMA Move to Pull Up Stakes in Puerto Rico While Island Still Struggles to Recover

Refugees International (RI) is deeply concerned that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is prematurely winding down its disaster support for Puerto Rico as hurricane season gets underway. Yesterday, FEMA announced the closure of several of its disaster recovery offices set up to assist affected residents in their applications for federal aid, and on Wednesday, FEMA denied the Puerto Rican governor’s request to continue to cover 100 percent of the total cost of emergency work. Meanwhile, FEMA has denied emergency assistance to 60 percent of applicants due largely to their inability to comply with the agency’s overly bureaucratic procedures that have failed to take into account the unique land and property ownership arrangements on the island. Despite efforts by legal aid organizations, 80 percent of appeals have also been denied by FEMA.

“The decision reflects what continues to be the federal government’s callous approach to Puerto Rico,” said Alice Thomas, RI’s climate displacement program manager. “Given the enormous number of people who were unjustly denied assistance, the fact that longer-term recovery money has yet to flow to the island, and the fact that the government is in bankruptcy, the decision is a low blow.”

A team from RI returned Tuesday, August 14 from a week-long visit to the island – its third trip since the storm – to meet with organizations working on the response and recovery for some of the worst-hit areas.

“While it’s been almost a year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, many parts of the island are still struggling to recover,” said Thomas. “What concerned us most is the high number of extremely poor, elderly people who were denied assistance by FEMA altogether, and who remain totally dependent on their neighbors and local community groups.”

According to FEMA, many disaster recovery centers were to convert to “community recovery centers,” and remain open through the end of the hurricane season to assist residents with recovery and preparedness efforts. But RI found little evidence of FEMA efforts to ensure local communities are prepared.

“In the communities that we visited, it was local community leaders who were taking the lead on disaster preparedness activities and who were directly reaching out to members of the community,” said Thomas. “FEMA is pulling up stakes despite the fact that thousands of people across the island don’t have a secure roof over their head.”

RI’s most recent visit confirmed that across the island, tens of thousands are still living under temporary “blue” roofs installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that were designed to last only 30 days.

“It will only take a modest tropical storm to rip these roofs off,” Thomas said.

What is needed now more than ever is for FEMA to continue to stand by Puerto Rico, to support municipal authorities with preparedness plans and procedures, and to work directly with local community leaders and organizations – who have proved to be effective in meeting urgent response and recovery needs – in ensuring that the most vulnerable communities are ready.
 

RI’s recent visit to the island was its third over the last year. In RI’s December report, Keeping Faith with Our Fellow Americans, Meeting the Urgent Needs of Hurricane Maria Survivors in Puerto Rico, RI documented the enormous delays in the agency’s response, especially with respect to transitional housing.
 

Background:

In late September 2017, Hurricane Maria, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record, directly struck Puerto Rico, taking out 100 percent of the island’s electricity and leaving all of its 3.4 million residents in the dark. Nearly all communication was lost with 95 percent of cell networks down and 85 percent of above-ground phone and internet cables disabled. More than 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s potable water treatment and distribution system was compromised due to a combination of direct damages and the loss of power, leaving nearly half of the population without potable water. Since the disaster, the government of Puerto Rico has acknowledged that in all likelihood more than 1,400 people died in the storm’s aftermath, 20 times the official death toll, due to the failure to provide proper emergency care for the island’s more vulnerable populations including the sick and elderly.

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