'I Don't Feel Safe': Puerto Rico Preps For Next Storm Without Enough Government Help

Jul 3, 2019
Originally published on July 3, 2019 12:55 pm

Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria, the town of Utuado is finally getting a new bridge over the Viví River to replace the old concrete and steel one that was heavily damaged during the storm and has been closed ever since.

"This is the main road in and out of town," Héctor Cruz says, as a crew uses a crane and other heavy equipment to construct the new bridge. Cruz is the director of emergency management in Utuado, a community in the highlands of central Puerto Rico.

After the storm, massive landslides and downed trees blocked mountain roads, cutting the town off from the rest of the island for weeks. Many residents have not rebuilt their homes, and many roofs are still covered with blue tarps. If a hurricane hits Puerto Rico this season, it would be a huge setback, Cruz says. "We will have even more washed out roads, less access," he says. "We'll have the same level of destruction, and next time the problems will be even worse because many things have not been addressed yet."

Rebuilding is going slowly all over the island. Congress has allocated some $20 billion to rebuild houses and infrastructure, but while planning is going forward, very little of that money has been disbursed.

Since Hurricane Maria, social workers in Utuado have gone house-to-house, mapping their communities in order to know where the most vulnerable populations live. In the event of another big storm, those residents can be helped first.
Greg Allen / NPR

And it is hurricane season again. So many residents and communities across the island are getting ready by repairing buildings and homes, converting to solar energy, banding together and doing most of that without a lot of government help.

"What happened in Maria can happen again," says the director of Puerto Rico's Bureau of Emergency Management, Carlos Acevedo. But Acevedo says Puerto Rico is much better prepared than it was two years ago.

The island now has a detailed disaster response plan — something it didn't have when Maria hit. "I feel proud of what we've done in Puerto Rico," Acevedo says. "I trust that the government response in Puerto Rico to a hurricane would be very different this season from Maria's. We have much more information, much better logistics."

Acevedo says his agency has placed warehouses around the island stocked with emergency provisions. There's a plan for delivering fuel and agreements with utility companies on the mainland to respond quickly to restore power after a disaster. Another major improvement is communication. All of the island's 78 municipalities now have satellite phones and radios to ensure they won't lose contact with the outside world as they did during Hurricane Maria.

But for many, the main concern is the state of people's homes. A Federal Emergency Management Agency assessment found nearly every building in Puerto Rico was damaged by the storm, and many say their houses are not safe to shelter in.

Architect Astrid Díaz (left) talks with Toaville community leader Yarilin Colón about damaged homes in the community.
Greg Allen / NPR

"Now we have more than a half-million people affected, and we have to build at a minimum 75,000 homes," says Astrid Díaz, an architect who was part of a FEMA team that assessed the island's infrastructure. "That challenge is very big."

Few communities were hit harder during the storm than Toa Baja, a town just west of San Juan, the island's capital city. After torrential rains during Maria, the government opened the gates of a nearby dam, causing extensive flooding in the area.

Yarilin Colón is the president of Toaville, a neighborhood in Toa Baja. She says about a third of the homes in her neighborhood are abandoned. "I worry about that because they bring in vandalism. There are two abandoned homes across the street from my house, and I don't feel safe," she says.

Colón's house lost its roof. Before Maria, she made her money as a seamstress, but the studio on the first floor of her house was destroyed. Because she and her husband have a mortgage to pay, she says they have no choice but to stay. She has organized her community to rebuild and prepare for the next hurricane. "It would be good to get help from the government," she says. "But we are not waiting for the government here. We are helping ourselves."

Marilian Vázquez, a resident of Toaville, says she is still reeling from the storm. Her home was heavily damaged and her husband's ice cream truck was destroyed.
Greg Allen / NPR

Marilian Vázquez, who lives close by, is still reeling from the storm, too. Her home was heavily damaged and her husband's ice cream truck was destroyed. He fell into a deep depression, she says, and hasn't worked since.

"We haven't seen anything done in Toaville to make us feel safer," she says, as tears roll down her cheeks. "The authorities haven't done anything to better channel the river water flow. We haven't seen any cleanup of the drain system. I don't feel safe."

Her sons and in-laws live in the neighborhood, and she says that's what leaves her conflicted about the damaged area. "I'd like to move," she says, "though Toaville is a very nice place. It's peaceful, we are a close-knit community. I have great neighbors. ... It's not easy."

Astrid Díaz, the architect who works to build resilient homes and communities, says that is something she hears a lot, even from people who live in unsafe areas. "The tradition in Puerto Rico is that generation after generation ... want to live in the same neighborhood," she says. "It's very difficult to try to relocate them." The challenge she says is to educate people in places like Toaville that they'll be better off in a neighborhood that is not prone to flooding.

Communities like Toa Baja, and others where residents have found little help from the government, are taking steps on their own to become more resilient and able to respond to disasters.

Volunteers at a retirement center in Rio Piedras take part in training to help them recognize and cope with stress and depression that's still a problem two years after Hurricane Maria.
Marisa Peñaloza / NPR

About an hour's drive southwest of Toa Baja, up narrow winding roads, there is Mameyes, a small mountain community. Since the storm, residents have opened a health clinic with help from foundations and charities. It is completely powered by solar panels, so as not to be reliant on the island's energy infrastructure in the event of another major storm.

The clinic serves seven rural communities, where many elderly people live who need lots of medical care. Before Maria, people had to travel an hour or more for health care, even for minor issues. The storm made health care even more critical, but Noelia Rivera, a 27-year-old nurse, says it took weeks for outside help to arrive. In her native Spanish, she says, "All the roads were impassable. They were washed out or covered with dirt. The road to Jayuya, to Utuado, to Arecibo, to Manatí, it was all blocked off. We had to clean out all the landslides. The community came together, but it was a huge job."

Noelia Rivera (left), a 27-year-old nurse, provides medical help in seven rural communities where many elderly people live. Pablo Méndez (right), an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Puerto Rico, gives guidance for the Center of Mutual Support in Las Carolinas.
Greg Allen / NPR

Residents here believe the health clinic will help make Mameyes self-sufficient and better able to respond in future disasters.

The community in Las Carolinas, a working-class neighborhood in Caguas, is trying to do the same. Here, volunteers cook and serve meals to be delivered around the neighborhood to disabled and elderly residents.

Mariseli O'Neill Fontana, a 19-year-old volunteer, stirs a big casserole of stewed beans. After the storm, with no power, damaged homes and supplies running low, O'Neill says people needed help. "Many lost their home," she says. "They couldn't afford to eat hot meals or even just buy food." And for many residents, that's still the case.

The group, called Center of Mutual Support, is staffed by volunteers who live in the neighborhood. After Maria, they opened the kitchen in an abandoned elementary school. Now one of the group's board members, Miguel Angel Rosario, says they're negotiating with the government to get the deed to the property. "Our plan is to power it on solar," he says. "We want to install solar panels here, especially in the kitchen, so we can continue to provide services to the community" in the event of another big storm.

The group in Las Carolinas has had help — funding from foundations and charities and guidance from Pablo Méndez, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Puerto Rico. Méndez says that like Mameyes and Las Carolinas, "Some communities are rising up and not waiting for the support from the government. And they now have more confidence in making their own decisions."

Mariseli O'Neill Fontana (right) and other volunteers serve food three times a week in Las Carolinas, a neighborhood in Caguas.
Marisa Peñaloza / NPR

Méndez has been working with 11 communities in Puerto Rico to help them identify their needs and take steps to become more resilient and self-sufficient. These are communities, he says, that have long felt ignored by the government — underserved areas that were hurting before the hurricane. They include "a lot of people that are living below the poverty level, people who are on unemployment, that don't have health insurance. What the hurricane did was to unveil some of the reality of how Puerto Ricans were living," he says.

As for Utuado, the small city up in the central mountain region of the island, things look much better than they did right after the storm. People are out in the town's square; stores are open; and the U.S., Puerto Rico and Utuado flags fly outside the colonial-era city hall. But the town's mayor, 36-year-old Ernesto Irizarry, says: "We will never be fully prepared for a hurricane." Utuado is smaller since the storm after losing about 10% of its population. Some schools have closed, but Irizarry says people are returning.

"Yes, we can be stronger," he says. "The important thing here is personal readiness — that you and your family are ready to survive for three weeks or a month without government help."

The Puerto Rico flag flies on the beach in Condado, a neighborhood of San Juan.
Marisa Peñaloza / NPR

For people in Puerto Rico, two years after Hurricane Maria, that may be the storm's most important message. Being prepared means not being dependent on that government help.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

It's been nearly two years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and rebuilding on the island is going slowly. Congress has allocated around $20 billion to rebuild houses and infrastructure, but very little of that money has been dispersed yet. But for many in Puerto Rico, there's a more pressing concern. It is hurricane season again, and across the island, people and communities are trying to get prepared. In Puerto Rico, NPR's Greg Allen found few people who think the island is ready for another hurricane.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Using cranes and heavy equipment, a crew's working to replace an old cement-and-steel bridge that was damaged by Hurricane Maria.

HECTOR CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Hector Cruz says this is the main road in and out of town. He's the director of emergency management in Utuado, a community in the highlands of central Puerto Rico. After the storm, massive landslides and downed trees blocked mountain roads, cutting the town off from the rest of the island for weeks. Many have not rebuilt their homes, and their roofs are still covered with blue tarps. If a hurricane hits Puerto Rico this season, it would be a huge setback, Cruz says.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: "We will have even more washed out roads, less access," he says. "We'll have the same level of destruction. And next time, the problems will be even worse because many things have not been addressed yet." The director of Puerto Rico's Bureau of Emergency Management, Carlos Acevedo, agrees that the island remains vulnerable.

CARLOS ACEVEDO: (Through interpreter) Yes. What happened during Maria could happen again.

ALLEN: Even so, Acevedo says Puerto Rico is much better prepared than it was two years ago. The island now has a detailed disaster response plan, something it didn't have when Maria hit.

ACEVEDO: (Through interpreter) I feel proud of what we've done in Puerto Rico. I trust that the government response in Puerto Rico to a hurricane would be very different this season from Maria's. We have much more information, much more logistics.

ALLEN: Acevedo says his agency now has warehouses around the island stocked with emergency provisions. Another area where there's been a major improvement is communication. All of the island's 78 municipalities now have satellite phones and radios to ensure they won't lose contact with the outside world as they did in Hurricane Maria. But for many residents, there's another concern. After Maria, their homes aren't safe places to take shelter. A FEMA assessment found nearly every building in Puerto Rico was damaged by the storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ALLEN: Few communities were hit harder than Toa Baja, a town just west of San Juan. After torrential rains during Maria, the government opened the gates of a nearby dam, causing extensive flooding. Yarilin Colon is the president of Toaville, a neighborhood in Toa Baja. She says about a third of the homes in her neighborhood now are abandoned.

YARILIN COLON: (Through interpreter) I worry about that. They bring in vandalism. There are two abandoned homes across the street from my house, and I don't feel safe.

ALLEN: Colon's house lost its roof. Her seamstress studio on the first floor was destroyed. Because she and her husband have a mortgage to pay, she says they have no choice but to stay. So she's organized her community to rebuild and prepare for the next hurricane.

COLON: (Through interpreter) It would be good to get help from the government, but we're not waiting for the government here. We are helping ourselves.

ALLEN: Neighbor Marilian Vazquez says her family is still reeling from Maria. Her home was heavily damaged. After her husband's ice cream truck was destroyed, he fell into a deep depression and hasn't worked since. As she tells the story, tears roll down her cheeks.

MARILIAN VAZQUEZ: (Through interpreter) We haven't seen anything done in Toaville to make us feel safer. The authorities haven't done anything to improve river water flow. We haven't seen any cleanup of the drain system. I just don't feel safe.

ALLEN: Vazquez says her sons and in-laws live in the neighborhood, and that's what's keeping her here.

VAZQUEZ: (Through interpreter) I'd like to move, though Toaville is a very nice place. It's peaceful. We are a close-knit community. I have great neighbors. But for my peace of mind, I'd move. It's just not easy.

ALLEN: Astrid Diaz, an architect who works to build resilient homes and communities, says even among people who live in unsafe areas, that's not uncommon.

ASTRID DIAZ: The tradition in Puerto Rico is that generation after generation, they want to live in the same neighborhood. And it's very difficult to try to relocate them. And that's part of the challenge, to educate them that they're going to have a better life if they go to a safe place. People say (speaking Spanish) nobody get me out from here.

ALLEN: In the absence of help from the government, communities like Toa Baja and many others are taking steps on their own to become more resilient and able to respond to future disasters. About an hour's drive southwest of Toa Baja, up narrow, winding roads, takes you to Mameyes, a small mountain community. Since the storm, residents have opened a health clinic. Nurse Noelia Rivera takes us on a tour.

NOELIA RIVERA: (Through interpreter) This is the surgery room. If someone comes in with wounds, cuts, maybe an abscess that we can drain, we can treat minor injuries here. Otherwise we assess and transport to a hospital.

ALLEN: The clinic was opened with help from foundations and charities and is powered totally by solar panels. It serves seven rural communities with many elderly residents. Before Maria, people here had to travel an hour or more for health care, even for minor issues. Once the storm hit, health care became even more critical. And Rivera says it took weeks for outside help to arrive.

RIVERA: (Through interpreter) Of course, all the roads were unpassable. They were washed out or covered with dirt. The road to Jayuya, to Utuado, to Arecibo, to Manati - we had to clean out all the landslides. The community came together, but it was a huge job.

ALLEN: Residents here believe the health clinic will make Mameyes self-sufficient and able to respond in future disasters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: Back in the small city of Utuado, things look much better than they did right after the storm. On the town square, people are out. Stores are open. The flags of the U.S., Puerto Rico and Utuado fly outside the colonial-era city hall. But the town's mayor, 36-year-old Ernesto Irizarry, says flatly we will never be fully prepared for a hurricane.

ERNESTO IRIZARRY: (Through interpreter) Yes, we can be stronger because we've built a better communication system or because we now know what to do in a catastrophic situation. But the important thing here is personal readiness, that you and your family are ready to survive for three weeks or a month without government help.

ALLEN: For people in Puerto Rico two years after Hurricane Maria, that may be the storm's most important message. Being prepared means not being dependent on that government help.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Utuado, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.