Parallel Roads of Disaster Recovery: My Week in Puerto Rico, Part 2

Posters of grassroots organizations stating “We are not leaving from here” and “They are selling us” are plastered along building walls.

The following events are Julia Orduña’s recollections while traveling for work to Puerto Rico in June 2022. This series dives into the experiences of disaster survivors in Puerto Rico and how they compare to the experiences lived by disaster survivors in Houston, Texas who work with our staff. 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. 

This is the second installment of a four part series. Click here for the first part of this series.

The second day, I spent the morning preparing with Alice Torres – a life-long organizer, die-hard Houstonian, and a Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus member – for our presentation to Hispanic Federation, whose work in Puerto Rico has coalesced dozens of organizations to support disaster survivors. Many of these organizations joined us in person and online for our hybrid presentation about the disaster recovery process in Texas and how members of the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus have helped each other and reflected on some much needed changes in the disaster recovery process. 

I was honored that Alice could join me virtually as it is essential to center survivors’ voices in these conversations. After all, they are the disaster experts with first hand experience.

Alice grew up in Fifth Ward and is Houston through and through. She graduated from Incarnate Word Academy, received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Houston Central Campus, and has lived in the Gulf Coast area of southeast Houston since before Hurricane Allison – yet Harvey was the first time they flooded. She and her mother Dolores served in their church community for approximately 15 years until COVID-19 shut down their programs. Alice became disabled in 1993 after a catastrophic medical incident that would permanently change her life, requiring her to adapt to a new normal of living on oxygen. She is also a cancer and stroke survivor. 

The Texas General Land Office (GLO) took over the City of Houston’s Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP) in early 2020 as the pandemic was beginning to surge in the United States. This change meant that the progress made by Caucus members during the two years in the City HAP was wasted time. Many of them were waiting to take that last step, waiting for the phone to ring that would schedule the meeting to sign the papers that would assure them a new home. While Alice and Dolores were waiting on the government to re-process their paperwork, they both entered the hospital with COVID-19 diagnoses. Alice was given life-saving treatment; her mother was not. Alice recovered from the life-threatening strain of COVID-19; her mother did not. 

Because of GLO’s avoidable logistical pitfall, they could not continue processing Alice’s application. According to the State, the homeowner and applicant was the now-passed Dolores Torres and continuing this application with an unclear title could possibly result in misappropriation of funds and ineligibility. Alice was told that the only way to clear this issue up was to sign more paperwork to clear heirship issues – something that the State was requesting of her as she was actively recovering from COVID while also grieving the loss of her mother. Alice did what was necessary only to be confronted with even greater obstacles. 

Who is the Caucus? 

The Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus came together out of the common need to understand the complexity of these government homeowner assistance programs. Together they have been able to learn from and with each other’s experiences in the program and what they can do to keep their application moving. Their collective knowledge and power has reaped benefits for many Houston disaster survivors in the program. The Caucus has grown to support each other by holding space for each other’s losses and cheering for each other’s victories. We love like a family and sometimes argue like a family, but we always hold respect and honor the experiences we have each had. 

To date, ten Caucus members or neighbors have received a new house through any of the government-funded Harvey HAP programs. And even five years after Harvey, Caucus members continue to find folks who are still advocating for help from the GLO – either to move their case forward, fight the appeal process, or get warranty repairs done once the house is complete. The Caucus continues to uplift necessary changes in the disaster recovery process in Texas.

Of the four Caucus members that we have lost in the last three years, all four of their families have forfeited their opportunity to receive assistance from the GLO. Some had heirship documentation barriers; others had no other choice but to sell the damaged property due to their inability to keep an unlivable and unusable property and rent another habitable home while waiting for the government to go through their nebulous process forcing them to lose what was due to them. Had this process not taken four long years and these women not lived in hazardous conditions for so long, these families could have been in a different stage of recovery by now. 

During our presentation, Alice and I talked about restrictions created by government guidelines such as eligibility issues and burdensome obsessions with fraud prevention. She described hurdles created by the State, such as poor calculations that insinuated a Duplication of Benefits, inaccessible appeals process that end in denials, and poor management of case files that leaves applicants neglected and forgotten every step of the way. 

Alice believes the government could create processes and policies that would actually help disaster survivors in the Caucus or the folks in Villa Esperanza in Puerto Rico. Such policies would create a universal application to be used throughout the entire disaster recovery process. That application can be paired with processes that create a more coordinated response at all levels of government while partnering with organizations already woven into the fabric of the community network to contribute to an overall improved process for those trying to recover post-disaster. The most necessary implementation is a community oversight committee who provides feedback to agencies about their administration of assistance programs. 

As Alice and I discussed the barriers and opportunities of our own understanding of the disaster recovery process in Houston, we felt a resounding agreement from the members of Hispanic Federation. They agreed that many of these changes were also necessary for an improved disaster recovery process in Puerto Rico. 

A few days after the presentation, Ivis and I met with David Carrasquillo of Hispanic Federation to talk about the on-the-ground housing and community development work being done by coalition members. Their programs provide “physical repairs to homes, civil legal services, and advocacy to ensure access to federal resources and public participation in community development.” Hispanic Federation, like community organizations in Houston such as West Street Recovery and The Restoration Team, are filling the gaps where insurance policies, low incomes, and government programs fall short. It is through these webs of community connections that folks in Houston and Puerto Rico alike are able to propel their recovery. 

While David, Ivis and I celebrated all the collaboration and community building that has been made possible in Puerto Rico, we also reflected on the reality that these collaborations were created out of necessity and drew attention to the gravity of the loss. David mentioned that there were 772 households that were selected for assistance. Out of those households, roughly 200 married women became widows because their husbands either suffered an injury or illness while attempting to repair their home. As we saw in Villa Esperanza with a landscape of half-finished houses, we were met with a familiar story: households who probably received FEMA money or put in their own money to begin building structures as they could were time and time again met with the issue of running out of supplies or suffering major loss. The Caucus has also lived through the physical and mental stress put on survivors who are waiting for assistance to fully recover. It takes its toll, and some do not survive. 

That weekend, Ivis took us around the island to visit other locations of interest. Our first major stop was Ponce. On the south end of the island, a little west of center, this little city is full of culture and small treasures. Unfortunately, there were a series of earthquakes in early 2020, and the fear of their homes collapsing forced people out of their homes and displaced them from the city. We walked around noting major cracks and fallen structures. The collapsed sidewalk pier was notable and closed off. 

Natural disasters are getting worse. Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Fiona five years after Hurricane Maria, almost to the day. As Hurricane Fiona was in the Caribbean, Mexico suffered an earthquake on the anniversary of two other significant earthquakes that shook the country. And we continue to hear about the flooding in Pakistan that has left thousands dead and millions displaced. 

The question we ask ourselves is how do we recover better? How do we build an infrastructure that becomes a reliable and efficient system to communicate and disseminate aid? The simplest answer is: ask the survivors. They are the experts. 

The Caucus continues to fight for justice and advocate for necessary changes in Texas’s disaster recovery system. 

We made our way along the south and east coasts of the island. We indulged in piraguas by the lighthouse in Rincon, and attended a protest circus at the park in Mayaguez. The park is normally only open 4 days of the week with limited hours and always closed on the weekend. As a way to ask the city to open it 7 days a week, the Domingo Pal Circo takes place on a Sunday and invites children to attend and make use of the space. I am continuously amazed at the creative and communal ways that organizers and advocates are present and making the change happen. I know that the disaster communities in Houston and Puerto Rico will also continue to amaze us.

Stay tuned for a third installment of this series to continue Julia’s journey in Puerto Rico and more stories of Houston’s own recovery from Hurricane Harvey. Hispanic Federation is currently mobilizing to assist with Hurricane Fiona response. If you would like to donate, please follow this link.