Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, about three-fourths of the houses in the Sierra Brava neighborhood of Salinas, Puerto Rico stand battered and empty.
Some families left because their homes were rendered uninhabitable and they had no money to fix them. Others left because they lost their jobs. In responding to Maria, federal agencies had hired some local people, but just for a few months; meanwhile, many other jobs disappeared and have not come back.
Sierra Brava lies low along the south side of PR Route 3 in the shadow of Salinas City Hall. Go for a walk through its now largely silent streets, and one residence in particular will catch your eye. On a corner along Calle Abraham Peña, the neighborhood’s four-block-long main avenue, stands a small grey house trimmed in bright blue and topped by a blue plastic tarp. It is in even worse shape than some of the abandoned houses. But Wilma Miranda Ramos still calls it home.
The hurricane shifted Wilma’s ramshackle little box on its foundation, separating the front and rear halves and giving it a distinct sideways tilt. Thanks to waters that flooded down the nearby Río Nigua from the mountains on the day of the storm, the floors now undulate wildly and give underfoot. Large portions of the ceiling are gone, and blue light streams in through the tarp above. Water pours in with every rainfall.
Wilma explained that she’d been living there six years, but because the house was not hers, she could get no help with repairs. “Now I have a stitched-together roof,” she said, “but as I have nowhere to go I’m still here. Staying here in these conditions is not easy. But since I have my daughter and grandson of four years here with me, living here and not in the street is worth gold.”
Certain now that no federal help will be coming, Wilma said, “I hope my guardian angel arrives soon.”
In the summer of Maria, the region around Salinas had an unemployment rate that hovered between 15 and 20 percent and a poverty rate of 54 percent. The median household income in Salinas was a little over $16,000. The city was in economic decline, rendering it deeply vulnerable to devastation by any hurricane, and the monstrous Maria was not just any hurricane.
More than a century of US colonial rule, culminating in a harsh federal plan to deal with the island’s debt to vulture capitalists, guaranteed that Maria’s destructive force would be multiplied by socioeconomic vulnerability. To make matters worse, federal disaster assistance to Puerto Ricans after Maria was much smaller and was doled out much more slowly than the assistance that went to Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma that same season.
Across Puerto Rico, according to the New York Times, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was responsible for awarding home-repair grants, rejected 58 percent of applications. When they did provide funds, the amount was often inadequate to restore a severely damaged house; the median grant was only $1,800, compared with about $9,127 in Texas after Harvey.
In Sierra Brava, only a lucky few managed to wrangle any home-restoration money out of FEMA. Roofs and the spaces where roofs used to be remain covered in blue tarp. The tap water is foul and undrinkable. Electricity was restored about four months after Maria, but with rates two to three times the cost of power on the mainland, people are falling farther and farther behind on their bills; as a result they now risk seeing their lights go out again, this time shut off by the power company.
Many houses in the neighborhood have been handed down within the same family for several generations, some going all the way back to Spanish rule. And that became many residents’ biggest problem. For almost a year after the storm, FEMA was approving repair funds only for those who could show proof of ownership, and many did not have sufficient documentation.
FEMA finally started accepting affidavits as proof of ownership last August but did not ensure that previously rejected homeowners were informed of the policy change. By then, many had abandoned their ruined houses and moved away for good.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘In Salinas, Puerto Rico, Vulnerable Americans Are Still Trapped in the Ruins Left byHurricane Maria’.