Parallel Roads of Disaster Recovery: A Week in Puerto Rico – Part 1

This blog is the first of a four part series. The following events are Julia Orduña’s recollections while traveling for work to Puerto Rico in June 2022. While all the stories in this series are true, some names and identifying details may have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.

As we wade through this hurricane season, and most recently feeling the desperation emanating from Puerto Rico and Florida as they were once again devastated by Hurricanes Fiona and Ian, respectively, we are reminded of the vast disparities involving disaster response and reflect on the stagnant recovery process imparted by federal and local governments. We continue to stand with our fellow disaster survivors in other parts of the nation as we continue to make our communities whole again. Read Texas Housers statement here.

My work at Texas Housers began in June 2019 to focus on disaster recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on our Texas coasts on August 25, 2017. I began learning the intricacies of hurricane damage and recovery by walking hand in hand with many Houstonians. The Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus, homeowners trudging through the State of Texas’s Harvey Assistance programs, have given me the opportunity to learn with them through their first-hand experiences as survivors and program applicants. 

That same year, Puerto Rico suffered catastrophic damages from multiple storms. The island was first affected on September 6 by rain and winds carried from Hurricane Irma as it passed on the north side of the island as a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Irma continued its path to cause major devastation in Florida. Not more than two weeks later, Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20 as a Category 4 storm after weakening from its Category 5 determination while over the Dominican Republic. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been the costliest on record and all three of these storm names were retired after this season due to their destructive nature.

My experience in Texas in disaster recovery led me to Puerto Rico by invitation of researcher Dr. Ivis Garcia, who was spending a month on the island with some students working on a multi-year investigation. Her work is centered on the recovery after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and how the government-funded relocation program is operating in the territory. This became a new opportunity to learn more about recovery efforts in other disaster-prone areas and how their disaster recovery programs are helping, or hindering, the recovery compared to what I know to be true in Texas. 

My journey began Wednesday with a flight to Florida and a bumpy ride to San Juan where I arrived a couple hours into Thursday and ready for bed. Several hours later, we were up and ready to attend a title clearing clinic in Toa Alta. 

We traveled to Villa Esperanza. There are wooden homes and cement homes at varying distances from each other. The topography of the area forces homes to be built on beams of different lengths. Informal electricity cables run through the neighborhood on makeshift light posts. The dirt paths and natural vegetation exemplify the informality of the neighborhood. 

The title clearing clinic was being held in the community center. There were families outside donning masks; others sitting inside on rows of plastic chairs waiting to speak to the representatives that were assisting other community members. The clinic was funded by the Departamento de Vivienda (Housing Department) utilizing Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) dollars, which are federal appropriations allocated for specific disaster events. A woman named Maria tells us her house was made entirely of wood, and it was totally destroyed by the wind; she received limited help from FEMA. She said some people were treated like homeowners and received assistance for their home repair, but others in the area, like herself, were treated like renters because she didn’t have a clear title and received significantly less assistance. That’s why she is at the clinic. 

We spoke to Jorge Olivo, director of the Villa Esperanza Community Center. He told us that in 2010, this informal community began building houses on land owned by the Autoridad de Tierra (PR’s land office) that was slated for agricultural purposes but unkempt by the government. Parcels of land started being advertised by individuals so locals could “keep it in the neighborhood” before it is sold off to or invaded by foreigners like other areas of the island. While the police attempted to barricade the area, Puerto Ricans still found a way in and eventually, the government negotiated the sale of almost 30 parcels of land. The community overcame the possible appropriation of their neighborhood through deep organizing and negotiation efforts – and all of that was ruined with Hurricane Maria. 

Because of the informality of the neighborhood, the majority of these homesteads do not have clear titles or house deeds, which is a requirement for any government-funded homeowner assistance program. While the situation leading to unclear homeownership documentation is different, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the heirship problems we’ve seen in Houston. I think back to Sandra Edwards’ struggles as she patiently waited 2 years to attend her probate court trial before she was allowed into the Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP). This was the first of many documentation barriers that continues to keep her in the intake process of the GLO’s program to this day.

Jorge tells us the CDBG-DR programs only started a few years ago. The Departmento de Vivienda is running the R3 program: which stands for rehabilitation, reconstruction, and relocation (comparable to the Texas General Land Office’s HAP that offers the same opportunities.) It took the government a while to start, and in the area of Villa Esperanza, there was only one home that had been demolished and rebuilt with CDBG-DR funding. 

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We found Diego outside his home. He has lived in Villa Esperanza for 8 years and works as a mechanic; he told us he is 5 years from retirement. Diego thinks back on Hurricane Maria saying he had never seen so many people equally in need. They waited for help, and it never came. When FEMA funds came to Puerto Rico, he was able to get repair assistance from a non-profit organization, but they did very poor work ultimately leaving his home in greater disrepair. R3 program staff were in the neighborhood and told him he needs to be persistent with the government programs in order to succeed. He told us that his wife would make the trip to Bayamón, the largest city close by which is more than 30 mins away by car, to turn in all of the documentation necessary. He says this process of collecting paperwork and looking for fraud took a long time. “Te tienen del cuello.” They have you by the neck. So they waited. After the paperwork was done and he was approved, it took the program a long time to start on construction. And once started, it took another 8 months to finish the construction. All in all, Diego says it took his family 3 years to get through the program. While he is entirely grateful for the home the R3 program built for his family, he says the hardest part was just waiting.

The R3 program told Diego they spent roughly $200,000 on the home and have placed a 5-year lien on it. While Diego did not have any issues with Duplication of Benefits with the FEMA funding, he knows others that ran into this issue. He was also told that the program is at capacity and is no longer taking applications.

We drove to Mucarabones, a community located outside of Bayamón. Patricia is a founder of her neighborhood and has lived in the area for 33 years; she owns the house but not the land. She tells us how it took them 17 years of advocacy and organizing to get formal services delivered in the area.

The front portion of her previous home was made of wood. When she thinks back on Hurricane Maria, she said it was a storm like one she’d never experienced before. The wind was coming from all directions, and the front part of her house blew over into the neighbor’s yard. The back portion of the home, a two-story cement structure with bathroom, kitchen and small living room downstairs and two sleeping quarters upstairs that must be accessed externally, still remains and is where she and her grandchildren stay. It still has water damage. The topography of the land where her home sits is on a significant incline, so the second level of the remaining structure is at street level. 

The new structure, which was constructed with FEMA funding and then further supplemented with her own money, is a cement structure on cement beams in front of the existing structure. It is a single floor on various size beams below it leveling the new structure with the street and second story of the remaining home. While the structure is done, the rest of the “envelope,” as well as plumbing and electrical, is still missing. 

Patricia was approved in January 2022 for a relocation and not a new construction because of the incline of the property. She was told that she is entitled to a voucher worth $160,000 to offer any seller for the purchase of a house. While she does not want to leave her community, she is willing to take the relocation, especially for her grandchildren. Once she moves, both structures on the property will be torn down and the land should not be used for other construction, according to Patricia and the program regulations.

She says the biggest issue with the program is that the government doesn’t keep anyone in the process informed. The other issue is that people purchasing homes with government vouchers are now experiencing a source of income discriminiation. She says she saw the house of her dreams within the budget, but the listing said they didn’t accept R3 vouchers. No one wants to accept government vouchers because it takes too long to pay out while other buyers can close quickly with cash on hand. 

Patricia has been in the process for three years. She’s picked the house she’d like to purchase, and the current owners agreed to the sale. She sent all the paperwork to her case manager to begin the closing more than three weeks before I met her, and all she had received in return was silence. 

Not too far from Patricia’s home, we saw a new construction going up with the Departamento de Vivienda logo in front of the property barriers.

The experiences of the residents of Puerto Rico are not too different from the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus. Long delays, mountains of documentation requirements, and disruption in communication are not unique problems of the island. The Caucus knows about the persistence needed to get to the next step in government programs. They continue to advocate for themselves and their neighbors when each one celebrates the far between victories: I am in eligibility. They assigned me a builder. I am finally getting the keys to my house. I can see these small victories in the conversations I had in my first 24 hours on the island. While recovery is slow, there are glimpses of hope in between the stillness of patience: a clear title, a fresh start, a new home…

On September 18, two days before the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Fiona made landfall shutting down the entire island’s power and causing catastrophic damage to homes all over Puerto Rico. Then Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on September 28. We in Houston, celebrating our own fifth anniversary unscathed, feel guilt, sorrow, and relief all at the same time. Our heart, prayers, and hopes of a speedy recovery are with every Boriqua on the island and those affected on the contiguous US. 

My first evening on the island was special. We went to the Kioskos in Luquillo to celebrate La Noche de San Juan with the people of Puerto Rico. This celebration takes place the night before St. John the Baptist’s birthday. In the tradition, at midnight you throw yourself backwards three times into the water to cleanse yourself of negativity and bring good luck. After the sun went down, the beach was illuminated by cohorts of people with competing sounds of reggaeton, bachata, and salsa blaring from guaguas de sonido (loud sound-system automobiles) as the gente held their fiesta on the playa. And at midnight, everyone ran into the water. 

Stay tuned for a second installment of this series to continue Julia’s journey in Puerto Rico and more stories of Houston’s own recovery from Hurricane Harvey. 

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