“Nobody comes here to help,” the 19-year-old said.
It’s a family lament in a US territory of 3.2 million people where thousands of homes, roads and recreational areas have yet to be repaired or rebuilt since Maria struck in September 2017. The government has only completed the 21% of more than 5,500 official post-hurricane works projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that no projects have started. Only five municipalities report that half of the projects scheduled for their region have been completed, according to an Associated Press review of government data.
And with Hurricane Fiona forecast to hit Puerto Rico on Sunday with torrential rain, more than 3,600 homes still have a tattered blue tarp serving as a makeshift roof.
“That is unacceptable,” said Cristina Miranda, executive director of the local nonprofit League of Cities. “Five years later, uncertainty still prevails.”
The governor of Puerto Rico and Deanne Criswell, head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency who recently visited the island, emphasized that post-hurricane work is underway, but many wonder how much longer it will take and they fear another devastating storm in the meantime.
Criswell said officials focused on recovery and emergency repairs for the first three years after Maria. Reconstruction has already begun, he noted, but it will take time because authorities want to make sure the structures being built are strong enough to withstand stronger hurricanes projected as a result of climate change.
“We recognize the concern that the recovery may not appear to be moving fast enough five years later,” he said. “Hurricane Maria was a catastrophic event that caused really complex damage.”
The hurricane damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths after knocking out the island’s power grid. Crews recently began rebuilding the network with more than $9 billion of federal funds. Island-wide blackouts and daily blackouts persist, damaging appliances and forcing people with chronic health conditions to find temporary solutions to keep their medications cold.
The slow pace has frustrated many on an island emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.
Some Puerto Ricans have chosen to rebuild rather than wait for government aid that they feel will never come.
Osorio, the 19-year-old from Loiza, said her family bought a tarp and zinc panels out of their own pockets and installed a new roof on their second floor. She but she leaks, so now she lives with her father and her grandfather on the first floor.
Meanwhile, in the central region of the island, community leaders who accused the government of ignoring rural areas formed a nonprofit organization, vowing never to go through what they experienced after Maria. They built their own well, opened a community center in an abandoned school, and used their own equipment to repair a key road. They also opened a medical clinic in April and certified nearly 150 people in emergency response courses.
“That is what we are looking for, not depending on anyone,” said Francisco Valentín, of the Corporation for Primary Health Services and Socioeconomic Development. “We have had to organize ourselves because there is no other option.”
City officials also grew tired of waiting for help.
In the southern coastal city of Peñuelas, Mayor Gregory Gonsález said he has requested permission to hire special brigades to repair roads, ditches and other infrastructure, with work to begin in mid-September.
It is one of five municipalities that has not seen a single project completed after the hurricane, with a pier, a medical center, a government office and a highway still to be rebuilt. Gonsález said that few companies make offers because they lack employees or quote a higher price than the one authorized by the federal authorities because inflation raises the cost of materials.
It’s a frustration shared by Josian Santiago, mayor of the central mountain town of Comerío. He said it is urgent for crews to repair the main highway that connects his town to the capital of San Juan because landslides are closing it more and more frequently. Tropical Storm Earl was blamed for causing eight landslides on September 6, just hours before becoming a hurricane.
“It’s a terrible risk,” Santiago said, adding that engineers recently told him it could take another two years to fix. “Two years?! How much longer do we have to wait?!”
Reminders of how long it has been since Hurricane Maria hit are scattered throughout Puerto Rico.
Faded red plastic tassels tied around wooden power poles that still lean up to 60 degrees billowed in the wind as Tropical Storm Earl dumped heavy rain on the island in early September.
Norma López, a 56-year-old housewife, has a leaning pole a few meters from her balcony in Loiza, and it exasperates her every time she sees it.
It’s still there. About to fall,” said López, who lost his roof with Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again with María. “I’m here trying to survive.”
Virmisa Rivera, 65, who lives nearby, said her roof leaks every time it rains and the laminate walls near her bedroom are permanently soaked.
She said FEMA gave her $1,600 to rent a house while she repaired her roof, but no crews showed up. Her boyfriend, who recently died, tried to install zinc panels, but they do not protect against heavy rains.
“My house is falling apart,” she said, adding that the government said it would move her to a new house in another neighborhood since she can’t fix hers because it’s in a flood zone.
But Rivera is worried she’ll die if she moves: She takes 19 pills a day and uses an oxygen tank every day. Her family lives next to her, which gives her security since she now lives alone.
Family is also the reason Osorio, 19, would like to see a roof for the second story. It’s where her mother raised her and her sister before she died. Osorio was 12 years old, so his younger sister was sent to live with an aunt.
Plywood panels now cover the second-story windows that her mother hand-built from cinder blocks. There she taught Osorio how to make candles and baby wipes that they used to sell, sitting side by side as Osorio talked about her school day.
“This is my mom’s house,” Osorio said, pointing to the second floor, “and that’s where I plan to live.”
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