Reflections from Puerto Rico
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Puerto Rico to speak at a conference on the role of nonprofits in disaster recovery, at the invitation of Enterprise Community Partners.
Before the conference I was able to travel around the island. The first thing I learned was that in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria simply having water to drink was the biggest need. One small nonprofit that had focused on policy work redefined its purpose on the fly and spent six months doing nothing but delivering water across the island. The next most pressing, as I had heard, was power. In the mountains we met a retired school teacher named Jose who was without power for
nine months. Because he lived in a small town and owned a generator, he had the luxury of standing in line for hours, every two days, to spend $15 for fuel. His power is back on, but think about the depletion of his resources which, as a retiree, he will never recover.
Eighteen months out, there are still many homes with failing roofs--no longer a refuge for the elderly people who fear falling on their wet floors. There are also thousands of abandoned homes, left behind in the mass exodus that has
followed the storm.
Meanwhile, FEMA, which is supposed to be the front line in disaster response, has denied 60% of the 1.2 million applications it received. Of the 720,000 who were turned down, only 50,000 had the wherewithal to appeal. One of the big reasons for the denials was the inability to prove ownership of homes that had often been in a family for generations. A group of nonprofits has prepared--and FEMA has approved--an affidavit that can be used in lieu of documentary proof. However, FEMA has refused to mail the affidavit to those who were denied, relying on the overburdened nonprofit community to try to spread the word.
HUD, meanwhile, doesn't even have its recovery program up and running yet.
In response to these challenges, we are participating in a coalition that is both putting pressure on FEMA and working with Congress to adopt a permanent disaster recovery program at HUD. As the legislative process continues, we may be calling on you for support. Each one of us may someday be the one who needs these programs as the climate change century rolls on.
As we left his home, Jose told us where to find the bakery that makes his town's special bread and gave us advice on the best foods to eat at the "kioskos" along the roads. The spirit of Puerto Rico, the love of life--and good food--is strong.
But my heart aches because I know how long their journey will be.