March 20 marks a sad anniversary for my home of Puerto Rico — six months since Hurricane Maria blasted through our island and changed our lives forever. While thousands of people are still struggling to get by, however, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been sluggish and inconsistent in resolving applications and appeals. My organization assists in the provision of legal assistance to citizens in Puerto Rico going through these processes, but more needs to be done.
It’s a long road back to recovery in Puerto Rico, and we’re not there yet. When the hurricane struck on Sept. 20, 2017, it left a wake of terrible damage. Half a year has gone by, yet hundreds of thousands are still without power, many without access to potable water and without the security of a decent home.
One essential element in expediting the recovery is ensuring that the U.S. citizens on the island have access to emergency assistance. FEMA provides crucial funds for families to put the pieces back together: to restore roofs, install windows, replace kitchens, furniture, and so much more. This assistance is especially vital in Puerto Rico, where the median income is roughly one-third what it is on the mainland ($19,606 vs. $55,322), and the economy is reeling under the impact of the storm.
The strategies used to deliver FEMA aid are not effective in attending to local challenges, and numerous barriers are preventing those in need from receiving the aid to which they are entitled. Immediately after the storm hit, it was almost impossible to apply online for FEMA assistance: power and internet connection was down everywhere.
Even as the island re-connected to the world, people then faced multiple barriers in the application process, including language. We heard many stories of FEMA inspectors unable to speak Spanish, a seemingly basic pre-requisite for working in Puerto Rico.
In the end, FEMA’s inadequate response has meant that many of those without power are still cut off, isolated in remote highland areas or in small pockets within the cities. My organization has been tirelessly collecting funds to help organizations that provide assistance, orientation and legal counsel to people dealing with the many intricacies of applying for and appealing decisions on FEMA assistance.
Across the island, we sponsor pop up legal clinics, where people tell us of the wide variety of challenges in the process of obtaining any help from FEMA. When the lawyers review documentation with applicants, they see wildly inconsistent decisions, random evaluations of damage, inadequate instructions for inspectors and evaluators, lack of understanding and accommodation of the particularities of home ownership documentation.
Even if they clear the hurdles, Puerto Ricans face additional challenges that have roots in our complicated history of colonization, slavery, and deep inequalities. The lack of formal property titles is one of the principal examples.
Our civil-law heritage from Spain makes property law different from the U.S.; it is more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to process an official title to a property. Many families have owned and lived in houses through generations without an official title. When FEMA demands an official title, they have no way of producing it, and FEMA inspectors and evaluators have no clear instructions as to how to proceed.
Other examples include families with more than one house on a single plot of land (only one house is entitled to assistance); land rescuers who have been permitted by government for years to live in lots but have not been given formal deeds; and homes passed from slave master to slave (and subsequent generations) without legal title.
We believe the Stafford Act makes provisions for many of these situations. According to the definition of Owner-Occupied dwellings in the act, if a person doesn’t hold a formal title to the residence and doesn’t pay rent, but is responsible for payment of taxes or maintenance, they qualify as owners.
A “written statement” can be provided to FEMA as proof; nonetheless, even when our lawyers prepare sworn and notarized statements for the denied cases, they are again denied help by FEMA. There is no regularity or known protocol as to reasons for denials.
Clear and consistent guidelines for assessing ownership and evaluating home damage should be given to all FEMA inspectors and evaluators — and shared with the general public for greater transparency.
Most urgently, Congress can act immediately to order FEMA to attend to local particularities when providing aid for reconstruction. If the goal is to help people to rebuild and have shelter before the next hurricane season begins on June 1st, the urgency cannot be overstated.
Amongst all the destruction and despair, and the ongoing lack of power and water, Puerto Rico continues to thrum with the life force that has sustained it for centuries. But in order to have the actual, material resources to rebuild, Puerto Ricans need and deserve the same consideration and federal assistance that has been granted to mainland U.S. citizens in the wake of disasters over many years.
Adi G. Martinez-Román is executive director of the Access to Justice Fund Foundation in San Juan, Puerto Rico.