Two roads to recovery in Puerto Rico

By Oxfam
A hurricane-ruined house near where Oxfam distributed water filters in the La Cruz neighborhood of Villalba, Puerto Rico. Rural areas are still far from recovering from the impact of the storm, many without access to power and potable water. Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Six months after Hurricane Maria shattered Puerto Rico, the road to recovery has split in two. While most people in urban areas are getting back to some semblance of normal, people in other areas—especially in the central highlands and along the southeast coast—are struggling to survive. And losing hope.

For hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, the nights are still dark—and so are the days. Six months after Hurricane Maria, nearly half a million people remain without access to power. As the months grind on, the constant stress and physical demands of living “in survival mode” have plunged many communities into a well of disappointment and despair.

“It’s a day-to-day struggle,” says Martha Thompson, Oxfam lead for humanitarian assessment and program manager, Puerto Rico. “Since you can’t refrigerate food, you’re constantly going to the store and preparing meals with crude sources of heat. If you don’t have running water in your house, you may be hauling it from a community cistern; it’s very difficult to bathe or do laundry. All this falls hard on women, especially those who are caring for elderly relatives and children.”

In many ways, the hurricane deepened the divides in Puerto Rico—between rich and poor, urban and rural, able-bodied and challenged. While life in the urban centers is slowly coming back to life—as the lights come on and businesses reopen—the reality in many remote rural areas is much more arduous, and dispiriting.

“People are getting very discouraged,” says Thompson. “Puerto Rico is a modern economy, built to rely on electricity to power essentials of life, and to operate with running water and proper shelter. People in rural areas have come to believe that the federal government has abandoned them and just doesn’t care. They are losing hope.”

While Puerto Rico has seen recovery for many of its 3.4 million US citizens, it has also seen myriad severe problems with the government’s response: scant preparation, bungled contracts, sluggish and inadequate efforts. In its recent report, Far from Recovery: Puerto Rico Six Months After Hurricane Maria, Oxfam finds the government’s efforts lacking, despite the enormous resources spent and personnel mobilized. The result is a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day.

Some progress along the road

Thompson, who has visited Puerto Rico several times since the hurricane struck in September, reports that many parts of the island have come a long way. As the power grid has been slowly repaired, people have celebrated in households, as well as businesses, schools, hospitals, and churches. The safety net has been restored, so people are saved from truly dire circumstances (for example, unemployment benefits are available). The supply chain has improved substantially: You can find food and bottled water (for a price), as well as tarps and tin sheeting for roofs.

And the immediate recovery has come a long way: roads are cleared, debris is cleaned up, homes have cover. (Although, Thompson is quick to note, even if a tarp is installed securely with ropes, as the US Army Corps of Engineers specifies, it’s meant to last only a month. Months later, it remains unclear when most tarps will be replaced with more substantial roofs.)

“At first, the devastation was overwhelming; you saw mattresses everywhere,” says Thompson. “It took so long to get covers on households and the rain just soaked and ruined everything—from furniture to appliances to clothes to papers.” The rainy season brought misery and mosquitoes to buildings that lacked screens and windows, and the nights were long, hot, and dark without lights or air conditioning. The mosquitoes also brought a heightened risk of diseases such as Zika, malaria, and dengue.

And communities have rallied to help each other more effectively. Local leaders have set up community cisterns, where water is delivered, or have purchased generators to provide power. Extended families and neighbors provide transportation and share resources. Neighbors fetch food and water for each other.

Left far behind

Still, rural communities face a steep climb ahead. While organizations, communities, schools, and churches all pitch in to reconstruct and bounce back, the odds remain enormous; the fact is that the scale of destruction needs a robust and coordinated response from the federal government. The estimates that the rebuilding will cost $94 billion. The most recent supplemental allocated only $16 billion ($5 billion of which is earmarked for Medicaid).

One measure of the loss of hope is the sharp spike in numbers of people who have committed or attempted suicide. “Some people have gone from enthusiasm to desperation over the months,” says Thompson. When she first met the mayor of a rural region right after the storm, he rallied his community to do clean-up and paid them from town coffers. After waiting for months to get reimbursed, he’s dispirited and disillusioned. “He’s so tired of the inaction, he just can’t engage anymore.”

Essential services still in disaster mode

Power: “In all the rural areas, electricity is a huge problem,” says Thompson. The central highland areas and the areas along the southeast coast where the hurricane entered remain the furthest behind. While the Department of Energy reported (on March 7) that about (roughly 440,000 people) remain unconnected to the grid, most question those numbers.

“When they hear the official figures, people roll their eyes,” notes Thompson. “They know the reality is so much different.” Many communities are running on generators, which use diesel fuel and emit noxious fumes that create respiratory problems.

Moreover, large-scale blackouts are not uncommon. As recently as March 1, two power plants shut down, causing .

Water: Although water systems have been restored in much of Puerto Rico, some communities still do not have easy access to drinking water. A central problem is the lack of electricity to power water pumps. The dangers from drinking untreated water are severe; at least two deaths have been attributed to and as of November 2017, a total of of the disease had been reported.

The lack of access to water puts disproportionate burdens on women. Many report negative physical impacts to their health from hauling water (and using buckets to flush toilets), and challenges to hygiene. When washing machines don’t work, women end up hand-washing laundry and hanging it to dry. If they care for the elderly, bedridden, infants, and children, the demands on their time and energy are enormous.

Housing: “You see blue tarps wherever you go,” notes Thompson. “But you also see abandoned homes just standing there, without walls or windows or roofs.” While there’s no official count, the governor of Puerto Rico estimates that by the storm: 87,094 destroyed completely and 385,703 that sustained major damage.

Still, in the face of this wide-scale destruction, it’s been very problematic for people to access emergency assistance from FEMA.

“It’s been a nightmare for so many people trying to get emergency funds,” says Adi Martinez-Román, executive director of the , one of Fargelegge’s partners in Puerto Rico. The organization runs legal clinics to help people who are trying to get benefits through the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) of FEMA. “FEMA has been sluggish, inconsistent, and lacking transparency in approving assistance for people whose lives were devastated by the hurricane. Literally thousands of families lost everything when the hurricane destroyed their homes.”

Economy: The hurricane also left the economy on the island reeling. “So many small businesses, especially around the tourism industry, have shut down,” notes Thompson.  While the official estimate is that up to 20 percent of small and medium-size businesses have closed, it’s likely that many more informal businesses are just gone. “You see shuttered business everywhere, especially restaurants.”

The jumped, and it’s unclear when (if ever) jobs will reappear.

The view from Palmarejo, in Villalba, Puerto Rico, where Oxfam distributed water filters to families recovering from Hurricane Maria. Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Inadequate government preparation, bungled contracts

While Puerto Rico poses some substantial and distinctive challenges to a comprehensive emergency response, “The truth is that this is what FEMA does, and they should have learned a lot of lessons over the years,” says Carmen Orozco-Acosta, senior domestic policy advisor for Oxfam, who recently visited the island. “Every disaster is different, but they usually require the same kinds of responses. There’s no excuse because Puerto Rico is different.” She notes, for example, that Hurricane Katrina had plenty of lessons for how to deal with communities where people don’t have titles to houses (currently a big issue in Puerto Rico).

In fact, responses in the wake of the hurricanes in Texas (Harvey) and Florida (Irma) were expedited in part because supplies were stockpiled nearby. Nearly everything needed to be shipped to Puerto Rico—and the government bungled a number of contracts in this effort.

Thompson notes just a few things that the federal government should have in place before the hurricane season in any vulnerable area: a stockpile of tarps; an intermediate system to supply water, such as water bladders and tanks; and allowances for the unique legal and language needs in applying for FEMA aid.

In addition, so far at least three examples have surfaced of severely mismanaged contracts that had negative impacts on thousands of people.

  • Tarps: won more than $30 million in contracts from FEMA to provide emergency tarps and plastic sheeting. The company never delivered. After four weeks, FEMA terminated the contracts and restarted the process to supply more tarps for the island. Thompson notes that tarps were in extremely short supply on the island for weeks, leaving thousands of households exposed to rain, wind, and mold.
  • Electricity: , a tiny Montana-based company, secured a $300 million no-bid contract to restore power. The Puerto Rican government terminated the contract after it was discovered that the company billed the Puerto Rican public power company  an hour for power restoration work by linemen.
  • Meals: won a $156 million contract to deliver 30 million meals. After it delivered only 50,000, FEMA terminated the agreement due to late delivery of the approved heated meals.

The urgency to build back better

“The next hurricane season is just around the corner,” says Brenda Guzman, humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam in Puerto Rico. “And there are so many things left to do to prepare.  The next storm could wipe out all the recovery we’ve done, unless we make sure it’s stronger.”

“This moment provides an opportunity to build a better, more resilient Puerto Rico,” says Thompson. “But until the US government makes a serious commitment to doing so, the next hurricane season will most likely bring another round of destruction and suffering. The people of Puerto Rico are our fellow citizens, and deserve better—we simply cannot wait for the next hurricane season to react.”

Still in the dark

March 20, 2018, marks six months since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico and devastated the island. It shattered the power grid, blew the roofs off thousands of homes, blocked access to water for weeks, took many lives, destroyed countless crops—and more.

The road to recovery has been long—and Puerto Rico is not there yet. The challenges are many: hundreds of thousands are still without power; many are without water, shelter, jobs, or businesses; and many are unable to return to their homes.

Oxfam made the decision in 2017 to launch an emergency response effort on the island after it became apparent that the federal government’s immediate actions were sluggish and inadequate. 

We embraced the opportunity to support local leaders and organizations on the ground working tirelessly to repair, restore, and rebuild. We will continue our partnerships into the next year, dedicated to programs that provide vital goods (such as solar lights and water filters) and help residents in myriad ways. In addition, we engage on Capitol Hill to push for adequate and equitable funding.

As we mark this solemn anniversary, we are doubling down on our efforts to assess the reality of conditions on the island, and to celebrate the work of our energetic and unflagging partners.

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