Jetsabel Osorio Chevere looked up with a sad smile as she leaned against her ruined home.
It’s been nearly five years since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and no one has offered her family plastic tarps or zinc panels to replace the roof the Category 4 hurricane tore off a two-story home in a poor corner of the north coast. city of Loiza.
“No one comes here to help,” the 19-year-old said.
It’s a familiar wail in the US of 3.2 million, where thousands of homes, roads, and recreational areas have yet to be repaired or rebuilt after the Maria strike in September 2017. projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that no projects have started. Only five municipalities report that half of the projects planned for their region have been completed, according to an Associated Press survey of government data.
And with Tropical Storm Fiona predicted to hit Puerto Rico on Sunday, possibly as a hurricane, more than 3,600 homes still have a tattered blue tarp serving as a makeshift roof.
“This is unacceptable,” said Christina Miranda, executive director of the local non-profit League of Cities. “Five years later, uncertainty still prevails.”
The governor of Puerto Rico and the head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Dina Criswell, who recently visited the island, stressed that work on the aftermath of the hurricane continues, but many are wondering how long it will take, and fear that another devastating storm.
Criswell said that for the first three years after Maria’s death, officials focused on restoration and emergency repairs. She noted that the reconstruction has already begun, but it will take time because the authorities want to make sure that the structures under construction are strong enough to withstand the stronger hurricanes predicted as a result of climate change.
“We acknowledge the concern that five years later, the recovery may not seem fast enough,” she said. “Hurricane Maria was a catastrophic event that caused really complex damage.”
The hurricane damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and resulted in approximately 2,975 deaths after the island’s power grid was destroyed. Crews have just begun rebuilding the network with more than $9 billion in federal funds. Island-wide power outages and daily blackouts continue, causing damage to appliances and forcing people with chronic illnesses to seek temporary solutions to keep their medicines cold.
The slow pace has disappointed many on the island emerging from the biggest municipal bankruptcy in US history.
Some Puerto Ricans have chosen to rebuild themselves instead of waiting for government help they think will never come.
Osorio, a 19-year-old resident of Loisa, said her family bought the tarpaulin and zinc panels with their own money and installed a new roof over their second floor. But she is leaking, so now she lives with her father and 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 non-profit organization, promising never to go through what they experienced after Mary. They built their own well, opened a community center in an abandoned school, and used their own machinery to repair a key road. They also opened a medical clinic in April and trained about 150 people in emergency response courses.
“That’s what we’re aiming for, being independent,” said Francisco Valentin of the Corporation for Primary Health Care and Social and Economic Development. “We had to organize because there was no other way out.”
Municipal authorities are also waiting for help.
The mayor of the southern coastal city of Penuelas, Gregory Gonzalez, said he was seeking permission to hire special teams to repair roads, ditches and other infrastructure, with work to begin in mid-September.
It is one of five municipalities that have not completed any projects since the storm, with a marina, medical center, government office, and road still awaiting redevelopment. Gonzalez said few companies are bidding because they don’t have enough employees or are bidding higher than allowed by federal officials because inflation drives up the cost of materials.
This frustration is shared by Josian Santiago, mayor of the central mountain town of Comerio. He said the main road that connects his city to the capital, San Juan, urgently needs to be repaired because landslides are increasingly blocking it. Tropical Storm Earl was blamed for causing eight landslides on September 6, just hours before it turned into a hurricane.
“It’s a terrible risk,” Santiago said, adding that engineers recently told him repairs could take another two years. “Two years?! How much longer do we have to wait?!
Reminders of how much time has passed since Hurricane Maria hit are scattered throughout Puerto Rico.
Faded red plastic tassels tied to wooden electric poles, which are still tilted as much as 60 degrees, fluttered in the wind when Tropical Storm Earl brought heavy rain to the island in early September.
Norma Lopez, a 56-year-old housewife, has a pole a few feet from her balcony in Lois, and it annoys her every time she sees it.
“He’s still there. I’m about to fall,” said Lopez, who lost her roof to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again to Maria. “I’m here trying to survive.”
Virmisa Rivera, 65, who lives nearby, said her roof leaked every time it rained, and the laminate walls outside her bedroom were constantly getting wet.
She said FEMA gave her $1,600 to rent her house while her roof was being repaired, but crews didn’t show up. Her boyfriend, who recently died, tried to install zinc panels, but they do not protect against heavy rain.
“My house is falling apart,” she said, adding that the government said it would move her to a new house in a different area as they couldn’t fix her house because it was in a flood zone.
But Rivera fears she will die if she moves: she takes 19 pills a day and uses an oxygen tank daily. Her family lives next door, which keeps her safe as she now lives alone.
The family is also the reason 19-year-old Osorio would like to see a roof for the second floor. Here her mother raised her and her sister before she died. Osorio was 12, so her younger sister was sent to live with her aunt.
Plywood panels now cover the second-story windows, which her mother hand-built from cinder blocks. There, she taught Osorio how to make candles and cloth napkins for babies, which they sold sitting side by side while Osorio talked about his school day.
“This is my mother’s house,” Osorio said, pointing to the second floor, “and I plan to live there.
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