5 years after Maria, reconstruction continues in Puerto Rico

5 years after Maria, reconstruction continues in Puerto Rico

LOÍZA, Puerto Rico (AP) – Jetsabel Osorio Chévere looked up with a sad smile as she leaned against her battered home.

Almost five years have passed since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and no one has offered her family a plastic tarp or zinc panels to replace the roof that the Category 4 storm tore off the two-story home in an impoverished corner of the north coast. the town of Loiza.

“Nobody comes here to help,” said the 19-year-old.

It’s a familiar lament in the US territory of 3.2 million people where thousands of homes, roads and recreational areas have yet to be fixed or rebuilt since Maria hit in September 2017. Only 21% of more than 5,500 former Official hurricane completed by the government. projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that not a single project has started. Only five municipalities report that half of the projects set for their region have been completed, according to an Associated Press review of government data.

And with Tropical Storm Fiona forecast to hit Puerto Rico on Sunday, possibly as a hurricane, more than 3,600 homes still have a broken blue tarp as a makeshift roof.

“That’s 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 wondered how long it would take and they worry that another catastrophic storm will hit in the meantime.

Criswell said officials focused on recovery and emergency repairs for the first three years after Maria. Reconstruction has now begun, she noted, but it will take time because authorities want to make sure the structures being built are strong enough to withstand stronger hurricanes as a result of climate change.

“We recognize the concern that the recovery may not seem to be moving fast enough five years on,” she said. “Hurricane Maria was a catastrophic event that caused very complex damages.”

The hurricane damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths after ravaging the island’s power grid. Crews recently began rebuilding the grid with more than $9 billion in federal funds. Island-wide blackouts and daily power outages continue, damaging appliances and forcing those 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 themselves rather than wait for government help that they feel will never come.

Osorio, the 19-year-old girl from Loiza, said her family bought a tarp and zinc panels out of their own pockets and put up a new roof on the second floor. But it leaks, 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 non-profit rural areas, vowed not to go through what they experienced after Maria. They have built their own well, opened a community center in an abandoned school and used their own equipment to repair key roads. They also opened a medical clinic in April and certified nearly 150 people in emergency response.

“That’s what we’re looking for, not to depend on anyone,” said Francisco Valentín of the Corporation for Primary Health Services and Socio-Economic Development. “We had to organize ourselves because there is no other option.”

Municipal officials have also grown tired of waiting for help.

In the southern coastal town of Peñuelas, Mayor Gregory Gonsález said he had sought permission to hire special brigades to repair roads, ditches and other infrastructure, with work starting in mid-September.

It is one of five municipalities where not a single post-hurricane project has been completed, and a pier, medical center, government office and road are still awaiting reconstruction. Gonsález said few companies bid because they lack employees, or they quote a price higher than the price authorized by federal officials as inflation drives up the cost of materials.

It is a frustration shared by Josian Santiago, mayor of the central mountain town of Comerío. He said it is urgent that the teams repair the main road that connects his town to the capital of San Juan because landslides are closing it more often. Tropical Storm Earl was blamed for causing eight landslides on September 6, just hours before it became a hurricane.

“It’s a terrible risk,” Santiago said, adding that engineers recently told him it could take another two years to repair. “Two years?! How long do we have to wait?!”

Reminders of how much time has passed since Hurricane Maria hit are scattered across Puerto Rico.

Faded red plastic tassels are tied around wooden electric poles that still continued as high as 60 degrees flapped in the wind as Tropical Storm Earl dumped heavy rain across the island in early September.

Norma López, a 56-year-old domestic worker, has a job just feet away from her balcony in Loiza, and it annoys her every time she sees it.

“It’s still there. About to collapse,” said López, who lost his roof to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again to Maria. “I’m here trying to survive.”

Sixty-five-year-old Virmisa Rivera, who lives nearby, said her roof leaks every time it rains, and the laminated walls near her bedroom are permanently soaked.

She said FEMA gave her $1,600 to rent a house while it repaired her roof, but no crews came. Her husband, who died recently, tried to install zinc panels, but they do not protect from heavy rain.

“My house is falling apart,” she said, adding that the government said she would be moved to a new house in another neighborhood because it cannot repair her house because it is in a flood zone.

But Rivera worries she’ll die if she moves: She takes 19 pills a day and uses an oxygen tank every day. Her family lives next door, 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 floor. It was there that her mother raised her and her sister before they died. Osorio was 12, so her younger sister was sent to live with an aunt.

Plywood panels now cover the second floor windows that her mother built by hand with cinder blocks. This is where she taught Osorio how to make candles and cloth caps for children that they used to sell, sitting side by side as Osorio talked about his school day.

“This is my mother,” Osorio said as she moved to the second floor, “and that’s where I plan to live.”

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