Behind her warm smile and well-healed appearance, Modesta, a local community leader in Loíza, Puerto Rico, is a force to be reckoned with. She has fought long and hard for peace in her community where gang violence has taken too many young lives. Then, when Hurricane María came ripping through her community six months ago, Modesta became a force for those in her community who desperately needed disaster assistance. And because Modesta, many of the most vulnerable are now getting the help they so urgently need.
Located on the northeast coast of the island, Loíza was formerly inhabited by slaves sent to live in the area by the Spanish colonial government. Most people there identify as Afro-Puerto Ricans. And like most other parts of the island, Loíza suffers from high rates of poverty with nearly half of the population living below the poverty line. This includes more than 60 percent of its children and 45 percent of senior citizens who exist in precarious conditions.
When I was first in Puerto Rico in November 2017, two months after Hurricane María hit, Modesta took me to visit several families in Loíza whose homes had been badly damaged or destroyed by the storm. Among the people I met were an elderly pastor suffering from Parkinson’s disease and his wife who spent their afternoons sitting next to the remnants of their demolished home, leaving only at night to sleep at a relative’s house. The only assistance they had received from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was a check for $918, which they had not cashed because they did not know what it was for.
Modesta took me to visit a family with two young children living in a partially damaged home in a flooded neighborhood. They had managed to get a blue plastic tarp for their roof, but it failed to keep out water from the daily downpours. Four months since the storm, they were still waiting for FEMA to visit their home and tell them whether they were eligible for a “blue roof,” a temporary roof made of fiber-reinforced plastic and designed to last 30 days until arrangements can be made for permanent repairs.
And then there was Juan, a deaf man living alone in a small wooden home. Inside the dark interior (none of the homes I visited had electricity) only dim light filtered in from a hole in the roof and water dripped down forming puddles. After we left, Modesta told me that Juan, who was HIV positive, had received no help from FEMA. According to the Access to Justice Fund Foundation, only 0.11 percent of Puerto Ricans who applied for FEMA assistance received the maximum allowable amount of $33,300. The average amount received by applicants was $3,000. Many, like Juan, had received nothing at all.
When I returned to visit in Puerto Rico in January, four months after Hurricane María hit, little had changed. On this second visit, Modesta introduced me to Rafael, a shy, soft-spoken man who looked down when speaking. Rafael led us to the small plot where his home formerly stood. All that remained were the concrete foundations and lower portions of the walls. He explained how he lost his roof when Hurricane Irma sideswiped Puerto Rico on September 6, 2017. A few days later, the Governor of Puerto Rico came to Loíza and met with him and other residents whose homes were badly damaged. The governor personally promised Rafael that he would receive assistance to rebuild his home. Little did they know that Hurricane María would slam into the island only two weeks later. What Hurricane Irma left of Rafael’s home, Hurricane María destroyed.
After the storm, neighbors from the community helped Rafael file an application for assistance with FEMA. But his application was denied because he could not prove to FEMA that he owned his home. “I was born here and grew up in this house,” he tells me. “This was my parents’ home.” As Centro de Periodism Investigativo recently reported, proving property ownership is one of the main obstacles to receiving assistance from FEMA. Like so many other Puerto Ricans, Rafael and his siblings did not go through the formal (and expensive) legal process of obtaining title deed for the house when his parents died.
All of this left Rafael feeling hopeless and depressed. But Modesta introduced him to local legal aid lawyers who had helped him to file an appeal. Once again, I found myself grateful that while FEMA and the Puerto Rican government were failing, local leaders and organizations were stepping in to ensure that vulnerable members of their community received assistance.
“The hurricane has changed us all,” explained Tania Rosario Mendéz, the executive director of Taller Salud, the community-based, non-profit organization where Modesta works. “It has framed the work, dynamics and relationships within the community. Before the hurricane, we were serving 8,000 people a year. Now, we’re serving 8,000 people a day. The hurricane brought forth the dire circumstances in our community – the exclusion, the inequality, the unfair treatment. The hurricane unveiled all of that. But it also revealed the resources that the community has to protect and assist.”
The woefully slow response by Puerto Rican and federal authorities to Hurricane María is nothing short of a travesty. But if there is a silver lining, it is that the disaster has exposed the incredible human resources in Puerto Rico’s communities, as well as the strength and dedication of those communities in working toward their own recovery. Unfortunately, of the $1.5 billion in funding recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help Puerto Rico recover, little will go directly to Puerto Rican civil society or the legal aid organizations, which have served as the principle safety net where the government have fallen short. The American public and the private sector will need to step in and support these civil society and aid groups to shore up the gaps. These organizations are the best hope for ensuring that the most vulnerable Puerto Ricans are not left out of recovery efforts.