Puerto Rico facing slow recovery after hurricanes, earthquakes and Covid

Thousands are still dealing with the fallout from a series of natural disasters to befall the island in recent years

Laritza Rolón Echevarría cleans her storm-damaged home in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico in September 2022, following the passage of Hurricane Maria. Photograph: Erika P Rodriguez/New York Times

Just steps from a shoreline that could feature in a Caribbean holiday brochure, the hulk of a large concrete building stands abandoned. The windows have gone, the roof is damaged, and it is open to the elements.

The building used to be a community centre, adjacent to a school. Both were on a beach that shelved down to the blue and turquoise waters. Now there is a mound of stones running several hundred metres along the shoreline, blocking the view of the sands. The stone barrier was put in place by the US Army Corps of Engineers as a breakwater to protect the land from the waves.

This is the district of Suárez, near Loiza in Puerto Rico.

It was close to here in the morning of September 20th, 2017 that Hurricane Maria roared ashore as a strong category IV storm. It had maximum sustained winds of nearly 250 kph, causing thousands of deaths as well as devastating damage to homes, water supplies and the electricity power grid, which had already been vulnerable.

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The hurricane was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region in modern times. Roads and bridges were wrecked, while it took 11 months for the lights to be turned back on for the last group of residents left without power.

The impact of Hurricane Maria was made worse as Puerto Rico’s infrastructure had already been weakened and the ground saturated by a previous big storm, Hurricane Irma, which had passed close by only two weeks previously.

The community centre in Loiza, Puerto Rico, which was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Photograph: Martin Wall

While Hurricane Irma dealt a glancing blow to the island, Hurricane Maria moved directly across Puerto Rico, with the eye passing only 25 miles from the capital San Juan.

The death toll from the impact of Hurricane Maria was contested, amid accusations that officials had played down the numbers, but eventually the island’s government accepted that about 3,000 people had lost their lives.

Local community worker Modesta Irizarry guides The Irish Times around the areas near Suárez. Irizarry says the community centre has not been rebuilt. At the edge of the beach stand a row of houses. On one, a blue tarpaulin covers the roof which was damaged by Hurricane Maria nearly six years ago. The blue tarps have become a symbol, for some, of the slow progress in reconstruction.

Houses in the area are either single or two-storey buildings along narrow streets. By no means are all the homes in the area still damaged. The majority seen by The Irish Times in that part of the island appear very well kept.

Irizarry says in the broader town and municipality of Loíza on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico about 200 families still have problems with their roofs or experience water leaks into their homes.

The problems may be worse further inland towards the centre of the island where some maintain those affected runs into the thousands.

Irizarry maintains that families have not received sufficient help from the government or from municipal authorities to be able to rebuild their homes. She blames bureaucracy for the delays.

Some families affected, however, did not want to leave their houses as they had been living in the area for 50 years or more.

A little distance away, Irizarry shows houses which stand along a road which runs perpendicular to a small river. She says water levels in this area following hurricane Maria reached about 12 metres (40ft), drenching the nearby properties.

Many of the houses in this area have been repaired, or at least re-painted, in recent times.

Residents say they are hoping for some form of barrier to be constructed to prevent water overflowing from the river again to inundate their homes. The stagnant water is also a haven for mosquitoes at dusk, leaving many residents with no choice but to remain indoors at night.

Modesta irizarry, a local community worker, says families have not received sufficient help from the government or municipal authorities to rebuild their homes. Photograph: Martin Wall

Presidential visits

“Together (we are going) to help rebuild Puerto Rico. And I mean rebuild it all, and rebuild it in a resilient way. When the storms come again, which they will, they’re not having the damage they caused before,” Joe Biden told a crowd in Ponce, Puerto Rico last October.

The US president visited the island to see the impact of another storm, Hurricane Fiona, which had hit the region a couple of weeks earlier.

He commiserated with Puerto Ricans at the blows which nature had thrown at the island – two hurricanes in 2017, a subsequent 6.4 magnitude earthquake, the Covid-19 pandemic and then Fiona last September.

“Roads and bridges built out after Maria have been washed away again. Families who spent their savings to build new homes after losing their last ones have seen them flooded away. Crops decimated. Farms destroyed.”

Biden acknowledged that after Hurricane Maria, the US Congress had approved billions of dollars for Puerto Rico, but that much of the money had been slow arriving on the ground.

“We’re going to make sure you get every single dollar promised. And I’m determined to help Puerto Rico build faster than in the past, so that it is stronger and better prepared for the future.”

US president Joe Biden hugs Democratic congresswoman Nydia Velázquez after delivering a speech in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in October. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times

In a report in 2021, a non-partisan think tank in Puerto Rico, the Center for a New Economy, estimated that of the $64 billion earmarked for disaster relief and recovery operations on the island, by that stage only $18.6 billion or about 29 per cent had been spent.

Last November the US government accountability office (GAO)– essentially its comptroller – said Puerto Rico’s government had estimated it would need $132 billion over a 10-year period to 2028 to repair and replace the infrastructure damaged by the hurricanes.

The GAO found that of $28 billion pledged in federal emergency funding to help the island recover from this damage, by last autumn the Government of Puerto Rico “has only expended about $5.3 billion (19 per cent) of available funding”.

“The funding Puerto Rico did use was largely spent on emergency work projects, such as debris removal.”

A report by the inspector general in the US department of housing in 2021 maintained that bureaucratic obstacles put in place under the Trump administration had “unnecessarily delayed” the recovery effort.

Trump himself appeared to be involved in some form of feud with Puerto Rico. On a visit following Hurricane Maria, he famously threw paper towels to people in a crowd who had been affected by the disaster.

In 2018, Trump suggested that the death toll from Hurricanes Irma and Maria had been inflated “to make me look as bad as possible”, and reportedly on other occasions suggested that the US should trade Puerto Rico for Greenland.

Donald Trump walks past hurricane wreckage as he participates in a walking tour in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Bureaucratic hurdles

Father Enrique Camacho is the director of the aid agency Cáritas Puerto Rico which has helped people affected by the hurricanes. He, like Irizarry, indicates that bureaucratic hurdles have prevented people from accessing funding to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

Much of the recovery money was channelled through the US federal emergency management agency or Fema.

Camacho says a lot of people have not been able to repair their homes after hurricane Maria as they didn’t quality for Fema funding.

“There are a lot of people in Puerto Rico where the grandmother or great grandmother is the owner of the land.

“She shared what she had with her sons, but then her sons died and then her grandsons or great grandsons have a part of this land, but the name on the official register is the great grandmother. Because they are not officially registered as owners of the property, they don’t qualify for the funds so there are a lot of people who didn’t receive their funds to repair their homes.”

Fr Camacho says it is non-profit organisations such as his agency that help those who have been left behind.

“If you go to the centre of the island, you will see a lot of houses with blue tarps still, and what is more sad is that some of the houses that were affected by Maria were also affected by the earthquake and then affected by Fiona.

“That is why it is so challenging. It has been really difficult to see these communities that are not well recovered from Maria, but then if you add those other disasters...”

“Some of them don’t have roofs. The people are living there … they have been able to repair some parts so maybe they are living all of them just in two rooms. And the other part is not habitable. Or they are living with family in other places because they have not been able to go back to their homes”, he says.

A house with a blue tarpaulin protecting its roof in Loiza, Puerto Rico. Photograph: Martin Wall

At the university of Puerto Rico, assistant professor Raúl Santiago-Bartolomei says the “overwhelming view is that reconstruction is slow, uneven and has gathered very little hope in terms of bringing about an optimistic outcome”.

He says that the last he heard, there were at least 3,000 houses with blue tarps, and adds that Puerto Rican housing authorities estimate 500,000 households have damage which requires some long-term reconstruction funding.

“Initially there were a lot of mistakes made by US federal government when they first deployed relief,” he says, “and aid they actually excluded a lot of households, there were issues in the entry process in applying for relief.

Martin Wall's America Letter: Puerto Rico facing slow recovery after hurricanes, earthquakes and mass emigrationOpens in new window ]

“Then the federal government and the Trump administration established very strenuous requirements to access the long-term reconstruction funds, basically, it was – I‘m not saying impossible – but an uphill battle for the local government here.

“We have cash-strapped and under staffed municipal Government and local agencies that can’t really muster [the] administrative and managerial capacity to handle a lot of money being thrown at them at the same time.”

He says many have opted “to outsource a lot of these tasks to large distaster -chasing companies mostly from the US mainland”.

The flooded patio of a house in the Juana Matos neighbourhood of Catano, Puerto Rico, in September 2022, following Hurricane Fiona. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Power system

Apart from housing, a key issue for Puerto Rico will be the future development of its power system, which has seen repeated outages over recent years. On his visit last October, Biden promised a “super-charged effort across the federal government” to repair and modernise the grid.

“I’m ready to deploy and expedite more resources from the department of energy and other federal agencies … to help transform the entire system so the Puerto Rican people can get clean, reliable, affordable power they need and the power stays in homes and hospitals when storms like Fiona strike.

“That includes mini grids, which you can begin to deploy soon so we are less dependent on transmission lines across long distances. The goal is lower energy bills and more reliable power for Puerto Rican households.

In January, Puerto Rico privatised power generation. The federally-appointed board that oversees the island’s finances said that “decades of mismanagement and neglect have left Puerto Rico with an expensive, inefficient and dated energy system”.

However, the Associated Press agency said later that month: “Many Puerto Ricans remain wary of this process, well aware that privatising the transmission and distribution of power in June 2021 did not lead to an improvement in issues including the length of outages, which has worsened.”

Nearly five and half years after the autumn of the two hurricanes, Puerto Rico is recovering, albeit slowly and not uniformly.

Santiago-Bartolomei suggests that, in a lot of cases, people used their own resources to repair damaged property. He also highlights that due to the crises that have hit the island in recent years, the population has fallen significantly – down not too far off a million – while the birth rate has also dropped.

He points to what he describes as “compounding disasters”, as well as significant economic challenges.

“After the hurricane, we had the earthquakes, and then another hurricane,” he says. “At this point, I think we are only missing a meteor!”