Special Report: In Puerto Rico, a housing crisis U.S. storm aid won’t solve

Faded U.S. flag and Puerto Rican flag are stuck into a mound of earth near the remains of Angel Colon's house after it was destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017, in Comerio, Puerto Rico

By Nick Brown

CANOVANAS, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Among the countless Puerto Rico neighborhoods battered by Hurricane Maria is one named after another storm: Villa Hugo. The illegal shantytown emerged on a public wetland after 1989’s Hurricane Hugo left thousands homeless.

About 6,000 squatters landed here, near the El Yunque National Forest, and built makeshift homes on 40 acres that span a low-lying valley and its adjacent mountainside. Wood and concrete dwellings, their facades scrawled with invented addresses, sit on cinder blocks. After Maria, many are missing roofs; some have collapsed altogether.

Amid the rubble, 59-year-old Joe Quirindongo sat in the sun one recent day on a wooden platform – the only remaining piece of his home. Soft-spoken with weathered skin and a buzzcut, Quirindongo pondered his limited options.

“I know this isn’t a good place for a house,” said Quirindongo, who survives on U.S. government assistance. “Sometimes I would like to go to another place, but I can’t afford anything.”

Villa Hugo reflects a much larger crisis in this impoverished U.S. territory, where so-called “informal” homes are estimated to house about half the population of 3.4 million. Some residents built on land they never owned. Others illegally subdivided properties, often so family members could build on their lots.

Most have no title to their homes, which are constructed without permits and usually not up to building codes. The houses range in quality and size, from one-room shacks to sizable family homes. Many have plumbing and power, though not always through official means.

The concentration of illegal housing presents a vexing dilemma for local and federal authorities already overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding an economically depressed island after its worst natural disaster in nine decades.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló has stressed the need to “build back better,” a sentiment echoed by U.S. disaster relief and housing officials. But rebuilding to modern standards or relocating squatters to new homes would take an investment far beyond reimbursing residents for lost property value. It’s an outlay Puerto Rico’s government says it can’t afford, and which U.S. officials say is beyond the scope of their funding and mission.

Yet the alternative – as Villa Hugo shows – is to encourage rebuilding of the kind of substandard housing that made the island so vulnerable to Maria in the first place.

“It’s definitely a housing crisis,” said Fernando Gil, Puerto Rico’s housing secretary. “It was already out there before, and the hurricane exacerbates it.”

In Puerto Rico, housing is by far the largest category of storm destruction, estimated by the island government at about $37 billion, with only a small portion covered by insurance. That’s more than twice the government’s estimate for catastrophic electric grid damage, which was made far worse by the shoddy state of utility infrastructure before the storm.

Puerto Rico officials did not respond to questions about how the territory estimated the damage to illegally built homes.

Maria destroyed or significantly damaged more than a third of about 1.2 million occupied homes on the island, the government estimates. Most of those victims had no hazard insurance – which is only required for mortgage-holders in Puerto Rico – and no flood insurance. Just 344,000 homes on the island have mortgages, according U.S. Census Bureau data.

Officials at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) acknowledged the unique challenges of delivering critical housing aid to Puerto Rico. Among them: calculating the damage to illegal, often substandard homes; persuading storm victims to follow through on application processes that have frustrated many into giving up; and allocating billions in disaster aid that still won’t be nearly enough solve the island’s housing crisis.

By far the most money for Puerto Rico housing aid is expected to come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

HUD spokeswoman Caitlin Thompson declined to comment on how the agency would spend billions of dollars in disaster relief funds to rebuild housing, or how it planned to help owners of informally built homes. Two HUD officials overseeing the agency’s Puerto Rico relief efforts, Todd Richardson and Stan Gimont, also declined to comment.

But the disaster aid package currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress would provide far less housing aid than Puerto Rico officials say they need. Governor Rosselló is seeking $46 billion in aid from HUD, an amount that dwarfs previous allocations for even the most destructive U.S. storms.

That’s nearly half the island’s total relief request of $94 billion.

The U.S. House of Representatives instead passed a package of $81 billion, with $26 billion for HUD, that still needs Senate and White House approval. The money would be divided between regions struck by several 2017 hurricanes – including Maria, Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida – as well as the recent California wildfires. Congress could also decide to approve additional aid later.

A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado, Puerto Rico February 1, 2018.

FILE PHOTO – A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado, Puerto Rico February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

‘MY MOTHER IS SCARED’

A generation ago, Maria Vega Lastra, now 61, was among the estimated 28,000 people displaced by Hurricane Hugo. Neighbors helped her build a new home in what would become Villa Hugo, in the town of Canóvanas.

Her daughter, 34-year-old Amadaliz Diaz, still recalls her older brother grinning as he sawed wood for the frame of their self-built, one-floor house, with a porch and three bedrooms.

Now, Vega Lastra’s roof has holes in it, and her waterlogged wooden floorboards buckle with each step.

Vega Lastra has been staying with her daughter, who lives in Tampa, as the family waits on applications for FEMA aid. The agency initially denied her application in December, saying it could not contact her by phone, Diaz said.

Vega Lastra is returning to her home this week, uncertain if its condition has gotten worse. Her daughter bought her an air mattress to take with her.

“My mother is scared,” Diaz said. “I hope the government helps her. I work, but I have three kids to take care of.”

The island’s housing crisis long predated the storm. According to Federal Housing Finance Agency data, Puerto Rico’s index of new home prices fell 25 percent over the last decade, amid a severe recession that culminated last May in the largest government bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

Legal home construction, meanwhile, plummeted from nearly 16,000 new units in 2004 to less than 2,500 last year, according to consultancy Estudios Tecnicos, an economic data firm.

A 2007 study by environmental consultant Interviron Services Inc, commissioned by the Puerto Rico Builders Association, found that 55 percent of residential and commercial construction was informal. That would work out to nearly 700,000 homes.

That figure might be high, said David Carrasquillo, president of the Puerto Rico Planning Society, a trade group representing community planners. But even a “very conservative” estimate would yield at least 260,000 illegally built houses, he said.

Generations of Puerto Rican governments never made serious efforts to enforce building codes to stop new illegal housing, current and former island officials said in interviews. Past administrations had little political or economic incentive to force people out of neighborhoods like Villa Hugo.

Former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, in office during Hurricane Hugo, said he tried to help informal homeowners without policing them. “Our policy was not to relocate, but rather improve those places,” Hernandez Colon said in an interview.

Subsequent administrations advocated similar policies; none made meaningful headway, partly because of Puerto Rico’s constant political turnover.

Today, informal communities provide a stark contrast to San Juan’s glittering resorts and bustling business districts. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz pointed to poor barrios like those near the city’s Martín Peña Channel, hidden behind the skyscrapers of the financial hub known as the Golden Mile.

“It’s not something I’m proud of, but we hide our poverty here,” Cruz said in an interview.

RECOVERY DILEMMA

The task of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s housing stock ultimately falls to the territory government, which has no ability to pay for it after racking up $120 billion in bond and pension debt in the years before the storm.

That leaves the island dependent on U.S. relief from FEMA, the SBA and HUD.

The SBA offers low-interest home repair loans of up to $200,000. FEMA provides homeowners with emergency grants, relocation assistance and other help. HUD is focused on long-term rebuilding efforts, working directly with local agencies to subsidize reconstruction through grants.

FEMA’s cap for disaster aid to individuals is $33,300, and actual awards are often much lower. Normally, FEMA eligibility for housing aid requires proving property ownership, but the agency says it will help owners of informal homes if they can prove residency.

How exactly to help gets complicated. For example, someone who builds their own home with no permits on land they own is more likely to be treated as a homeowner, said Justo Hernandez, FEMA’s deputy federal coordinating officer. Squatters who built on land they didn’t own, however, would likely only be given money to cover lost items and relocate to a rental, he said.

Several Villa Hugo residents said they received money from FEMA, but many didn’t know what it was for and complained it wasn’t enough.

Lourdes Rios Romero, 59, plans to appeal the $6,000 grant she got for repairs to her flooded home, citing a much higher contractor’s quote. Neighbor Miguel Rosario Lopez, a 62-year-old retiree, showed a statement from FEMA saying he was eligible for $916.22, “to perform essential repairs that will allow you to live in your home.”

Without money for major changes, most homeowners said they planned to combine the aid they might get from FEMA with what little money they could raise to rebuild in the same spot.

FEMA does not police illegal building. Code enforcement is left to the same local authorities who have allowed illegal construction to persist for years.

Quirindongo is planning to buy materials to rebuild his Villa Hugo home himself with about $4,000 from FEMA. It will be the third time he has done so, having lost one home to a 2011 flood, another to a fire.

“I just want to have something that I can say, ‘This is mine,’” Quirindongo said.

GIVING UP

Many others appear to have given up on FEMA aid because the agency’s application process is entangled with a separate process for awarding SBA loans to rebuild homes.

FEMA is legally bound to assess whether applicants might qualify for SBA loans before awarding them FEMA grants. If an applicant passes FEMA’s cursory eligibility assessment, they are automatically referred to SBA for a more thorough screening.

Applicants are not required to follow through on the SBA process – but they cannot qualify for FEMA aid unless they do. FEMA only provides a grant when the SBA denies the applicant a loan.

FEMA said it has referred about 520,000 people out of 1.1 million total applicants so far to the SBA. But as of Monday, only 59,000 followed through with SBA applications. Of those, some 12,000 later withdrew, SBA data shows.

“As soon as people see SBA they say, ‘I give up, I don’t want a loan – I can’t afford a loan,’” FEMA’s Hernandez said.

SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang said the agency is working with FEMA to educate flood victims on available benefits and the application process, including sending staffers to applicants’ homes.

330,000 VACANT HOMES

Before the storm hit, Puerto Rico already had about 330,000 vacant homes, according to Census Bureau 2016 estimates, resulting from years of population decline as citizens migrated to the mainland United States and elsewhere. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and can move to the mainland at will.

Puerto Rico and federal officials have considered rehabilitating the vacant housing for short- and long-term use, along with building new homes and buying out homeowners in illegally built neighborhoods, according to Gil and federal officials.

Rosselló, the Puerto Rican governor, has said the rebuilding plan must include a fleet of properly built new homes. Gil, the housing secretary, said the administration would like to build as many as 70,000 properties.

HUD officials declined to comment on whether the agency would finance new housing. Its Community Development Block Grant program allows for local governments to design their own solutions and seek HUD approval for funding.

The cost of constructing enough new, code-compliant properties to house people displaced by Maria could far exceed the available federal aid. Making them affordable also presents a problem.

Puerto Rico’s subsidized “social interest housing,” geared toward low-income buyers, typically provides units that sell in the mid-$100,000 range, with prices capped by the government. That’s beyond the means of many displaced storm victims.

Gil offered little detail on a solution beyond saying it will include a mix of new development, buyout programs for owners of illegally built homes and other options.

The answer will come down to how much Washington is willing to pay, he said. He invoked the island’s territorial status and colonial history as a root cause of its poor infrastructure and housing stock before the storm.

“It is precisely because we have been neglected by the federal government that the island’s infrastructure is so weak,” he said.

Many Puerto Rico officials continue to advocate for bringing relief and legitimacy to squatter communities like Villa Hugo, rather than trying to relocate their residents.

Canovanas Mayor Lornna Soto has been negotiating with island officials to provide property titles to Villa Hugo’s population. The vast majority still don’t have them.

“It’s long overdue to recognize that they are not going anywhere and their communities need to be rebuilt with proper services,” Soto said.

Diaz said she supports her mother’s decision to return to Villa Hugo, regardless of what aid the government ultimately provides.

“I grew up there,” Diaz said. “Everyone knows us there.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico; editing by Brian Thevenot)

U.S. agency says will keep providing water, other essentials in Puerto Rico

A car is partially buried under the remains of a building, after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, in Humacao, Puerto Rico January 25, 2018.

By Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Wednesday it would continue providing water, meals and other essentials to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico despite earlier reports its humanitarian mission in the U.S. territory would end on Wednesday.

“There was never, and is not now, a decision to stop distributing commodities on the island,” FEMA said in a written statement on Wednesday evening.

Puerto Rico is struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which hit on Sept. 20. The storm killed dozens and left the entire island without power at a time when it was already trudging through the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history, with some $120 billion in combined bond and pension debt.

Some Puerto Rican and U.S. politicians had criticized FEMA this week after NPR reported on Monday that FEMA’s mission in Puerto Rico was coming to an end, citing a spokesman for the agency.

On Tuesday, FEMA reversed course, saying the initial Jan. 31 end date had been relayed in error.

Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, speaking on the Senate Floor on Monday, had said it would be “unconscionable” and “a travesty” to cut off aid in Puerto Rico, where nearly a third of the island’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens still lack power more than four months after the storm.

Eventually, FEMA will hand over responsibility for humanitarian aid to Puerto Rico’s government.

Amid the confusion over the timing of that transition, Puerto Rico’s public safety director, Hector Pesquera, said on Tuesday his administration was still negotiating with FEMA on the timing of the handover.

“We have yet to finish the discussions about when the transition should start,” Pesquera said. “It is important to note that this transition period should last at least two weeks.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Florida communities scramble to help displaced Puerto Ricans

Puerto Rican Debora Oquendo, 43, makes a phone call to a doctor for her 10-month-old daughter in a hotel room where she lives, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 4, 2017.

By Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez

KISSIMMEE, Florida (Reuters) – At Leslie Campbell’s office in the central Florida city of St. Cloud, the phone will not stop ringing.

Director of special programs for the Osceola County School District, Campbell helps enroll students fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Her job has been a busy one. Since hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the Caribbean in September, over 2,400 new students have arrived in the district. That is enough to fill more than two typical-sized elementary schools. Dozens more youngsters show up weekly.

“We’re just inundated, from the minute we come in, to the minute we leave,” said Campbell, who helps families obtain transportation, meals and clothing.

Across the country, state and local officials are scrambling to manage an influx of Puerto Ricans, a migration that is impacting education budgets, housing, demographics and voter rolls in communities where these newcomers are landing.

Florida, already home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, is on the front lines. About 300,000 island residents have arrived in the state since early October, according to Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. The influx is nearly 2.5 times the size of the Mariel boat lift that brought 125,000 Cubans ashore in 1980.

Some Puerto Rican arrivals have passed through Florida on their way to New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states. Some may eventually return home. But many will not. The island is still reeling months after Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, wreaked catastrophic damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. Nearly 40 percent of residents still lack electricity. The economy has been devastated.

For Florida, the inflow of Puerto Ricans is altering public budgets and perhaps the political calculus in a state that President Donald Trump won by a slim margin in 2016. Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are on pace to overtake Cuban-Americans within a few years as the state’s largest Latino voting bloc. Many criticized the Trump administration’s hurricane response as inadequate.

Politicians are taking notice. Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott has reached out to these newcomers. The state has opened reception centers where Puerto Ricans can apply for food stamps and Medicaid, the federal healthcare system for the poor. Scott has asked for an additional $100 million in state spending to house arriving families, many of whom are doubled up with relatives or packed into aging hotels.

Washington, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with the question of how to help Puerto Rico, having long rejected the idea of a federal bailout for the insolvent U.S. territory, which filed for a form of bankruptcy in May. Congress appears unlikely to grant anywhere near the $94.4 billion the territory’s leaders estimate it would take to rebuild.

As federal lawmakers dither, state and local taxpayers are watching the tab to resettle islanders grow.

Statewide, more than 11,200 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island have enrolled in Florida public schools since the storms, according to the governor’s office. Most arrived after a deadline that determines state funding based on enrollment, resulting in an estimated loss for local districts of $42 million during the 2017 fall semester, a Reuters analysis shows.

Requests for public assistance climbed by 5 percent in Florida during the last three months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016, according to state figures. Federal food stamp issuance, driven by victims of hurricanes Irma and Maria, jumped 24 percent or $294 million over the same period.

The state is also seeing more extremely ill patients from Puerto Rico.

Keyshla Betancourt Irizarry, 22, came to Florida in October on a humanitarian flight with her mother and brother. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island whose healthcare system is in tatters.

Now living in Orlando, she is on Florida’s Medicaid plan, which pays for her radiation treatments. The family has no plans to return to the territory.

“I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria,” Betancourt said.

Medicaid patients cost the federal government more on the mainland than in Puerto Rico, because Washington caps Medicaid funding sent to its territories. Such costs will only grow if Congress fails to stabilize Puerto Rico, said Juan Hernandez Mayoral, former director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the territory in Washington.

“You can pay for it in the 50 states or you can pay much less in Puerto Rico,” Hernandez said. “The hurricane has sped up the migration.”

A Reuters photo essay (http://reut.rs/2AQmzh6) captures images of displaced Puerto Ricans in Florida.

CLASSROOM SQUEEZE

Central Florida was one of the country’s fastest-growing regions even before the disasters as Puerto Ricans fleeing a sputtering economy flocked here for jobs in the booming tourist trade. An estimated 360,000 have settled in the area, the largest concentration in Florida.

The Osceola County school district has enrolled thousands of new students in recent years, including nearly 2,700 in 2015-2016 alone. To accommodate them, the district hired more bilingual teachers, converted offices into classrooms, added portable units and built a new middle school. In 2016, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to provide more funding.

Hurricane Maria has compounded the urgency.

“We have students coming without clothes or records. Some are exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” said Kelvin Soto, an Osceola County school board member. “We’re handling it well, but it’s straining our resources.”

Recent arrivals include Felix Martell and his five-year-old daughter Eliany, who settled in Ocala, Florida, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Orlando. Martell is the sole caretaker for the child after his wife died two years ago. He worried Eliany’s education would suffer in Puerto Rico due to lengthy school closures following Maria.

Father and daughter are now living in a run-down hotel paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Martell has yet to find a job. Still, he said there is no turning back.

“The girl has learned more in three weeks of school here than in the entire semester on the island,” he said. “I am concentrating on her future.”

TIGHT HOUSING

A shortage of affordable housing is acute for Puerto Rican emigres.

The Community Hope Center, a nonprofit in Kissimmee, Florida, south of Orlando, has been besieged with requests for shelter, according to Rev. Mary Downey, the executive director.

“People are calling us and saying, ‘we’re homeless now,'” Downey said. “It’s awful. There is simply not enough housing to meet the needs.”

Central Florida housing is a bargain compared to places such as New York or San Francisco, but it is beyond the reach of many newcomers lacking savings or jobs. Homes under $200,000 sell quickly, and Orlando-area rents are growing faster than the national average. Local officials say the situation could worsen as families that are doubling and tripling up eventually seek their own places.

Deborah Oquendo Fuentes, 43, and her 11-month-old baby girl Genesis Rivera share a FEMA-paid hotel room in Orlando after fleeing Puerto Rico in October. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month.

“I don’t have enough money to move to another place,” Oquendo said. “I feel alone, and I’m afraid.”

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Search for survivors of devastating California mudslide enters third day

Damaged properties are seen after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 11, 2018.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

MONTECITO, Calif. (Reuters) – The search for survivors from a devastating Southern California mudslide that has killed at least 17 people moved into its third day on Friday, with some 700 rescue workers expecting to find more dead victims.

Triggered by heavy rains, the massive slide struck before dawn on Tuesday, when a wall of mud and debris cascaded down hillsides that were denuded last month by wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history.

“Realistically we suspect we are going to have the discovery of more people killed in this incident,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a Thursday news briefing, adding that he was hoping to find “miracle” survivors.

Brown said 43 people remain missing, although some may just be out of communication.

In one of the hardest hit areas, the affluent seaside community of Montecito, the devastation wrought by the slide and the gruesome undertaking faced by emergency crews was evident.

Neighborhoods were littered with uprooted trees and downed power lines, and front yards in homes filled with mud were strewn with boulders.

Elsewhere, cars carried away by the flow were perched on mounds of earth and mangled garage doors crushed by the mud rested at odd angles.

The cause of death for all 17 victims who perished will be listed as multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office said in a statement on Thursday.

The dead victims range in age from three to 89.

Josephine Gower, 69, died when she opened the door to her home, her son, Hayden Gower, told NBC station KSBY. Her daughter-in-law Sarah Gower confirmed Gower’s death in a Facebook post. Her body was found that night, near a highway hit by the slide.

“I told her to stay on the second floor, but she went downstairs and opened the door and just got swept away,” Hayden Gower said. “I should have just told her to leave. You just don’t even think that this is possible.”

The sheriff’s office also expanded the evacuation zone in the Montecito area on Thursday, as traffic on the already-clogged roads is hindering efforts by rescue and repair crews to access the devastation.

Rescue workers in helicopters and high-wheeled military vehicles, some with search dogs, were deployed in the hunt for the missing in a disaster zone littered with the remnants of hundreds of damaged or destroyed homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted a request on Thursday by Governor Jerry Brown for expanded financial aid that was first allocated for the Thomas Fire, the governor’s office said in a statement.

“This declaration ensures that federal funds are available for emergency response and eligible disaster recovery costs,” the governor’s statement said.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Chris Kenning in Chicago, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Catherine Evans)

FEMA allows churches to apply retroactively for disaster aid

Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Tuesday that churches may apply for aid relating to disasters declared after Aug. 23, 2017, following pressure from President Donald Trump and a lawsuit by Texas churches.

The federal disaster relief agency was sued in September by three Texas churches severely damaged in Hurricane Harvey, over what they called its policy of refusing to provide disaster relief to houses of worship because of their religious status.

Trump had said in a tweet that Texas churches should be able to receive money from FEMA for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey. It was not clear whether the three churches provided aid to victims.

The churches that sued are the Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, which lost its roof and steeple and suffered other structural damage, and the Harvest Family Church in Cypress and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, which were both flooded.

In a complaint filed in federal court in Houston, the churches said they would like to apply for aid but it would be “futile” because FEMA’s public assistance program “categorically” excluded their claims, violating their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.

They said FEMA’s ban on providing relief where at least half a building’s space is used for religious purposes, a policy also enforced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, contradicted a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision making it easier for religious groups to get public aid.

(Reporting by Chris Sanders; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Trailers could house those displaced by fires in California wine country

Trailers could house those displaced by fires in California wine country

By Dan Whitcomb and Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Residents of Northern California’s wine country left homeless by the state’s deadliest-ever wildfires could be temporarily housed in federal government trailers, officials said on Wednesday, as the death toll from the blazes rose to 42.

Since erupting on Oct. 8 and 9, the blazes have blackened more than 245,000 acres, (86,200 hectares) and destroyed an estimated 4,600 homes along with wineries and commercial buildings.

Thousands of survivors, forced to flee the flames with little warning, remain displaced. Many are returning to find nothing left, forcing them to seek housing in emergency shelters or with family and friends.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has called trailers a solution of last resort for housing the displaced.

But local officials said they had few other options because of a lack of hotels and rental housing, especially around Santa Rosa – the urban hub of the region’s wine country – which had nearly 5 percent of its homes destroyed.

“We have talked to FEMA about trailers, we’re not sure what the availability is, how soon we could get them here, but we are looking at every option,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey told Reuters by phone.

“I don’t relish having people living in FEMA trailers, but it’s a hell of a lot better than sleeping out under the stars,” he said.

FEMA deployed trailers to house thousands of people displaced by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina along the U.S. Gulf Coast, triggering lawsuits by people who contended they were exposed to formaldehyde in the government-issued housing.

A judge in 2012 approved a settlement requiring builders of the trailers to pay a settlement of nearly $40 million.

FEMA’s latest trailers, which it calls manufactured or temporary housing units, have new safety features and are built to high standards, the agency said in a blog post last year.

The agency is only at the beginning stage of determining which options to employ, in consultation with local officials, to house people displaced by the fires, FEMA spokesman Victor Inge said by phone.

“A temporary housing unit is an absolute last resort, they’re expensive and they take a long time to get set up,” Inge said.

‘PROBABLY GOING TO NEED TRAILERS’

Officials with Sonoma County, which includes Santa Rosa, are considering sites with built-in utilities, such as running water and electricity, for mobile-home units, said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

“We know we’re probably going to need FEMA trailers,” she said.

Firefighters on Wednesday were still battling the blazes, the deadliest in state history, as search-and-rescue teams picked through burned-out neighborhoods.

Law enforcement officials said the body of the 42nd confirmed victim was found late on Tuesday in the Fountain Grove section of Santa Rosa.

About 60 people remain missing or unaccounted for in Sonoma and Napa counties. Most of the more than 2,000 people listed in missing-persons reports have turned up safe, including evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes.

Fire officials said that while 13 major blazes were still burning as of Wednesday, the flames were largely contained and no longer considered a threat to homes or communities.

“We have stopped the forward progress and movement of all these fires, we have line around them,” Brett Gouvea, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection deputy chief, told reporters at an afternoon news conference. A Santa Rosa couple whose house was destroyed sued Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) on Tuesday, alleging the utility failed to take preventative measures in the face of dangerous drought conditions.

Representatives for PG&E said that the utility was focused on supporting firefighting efforts and restoring power

About 30 vintners sustained fire damage to wine-making facilities, vineyards, tasting rooms or other assets, according to the Napa Valley Vintners industry group

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)

U.S. mail carriers emerge as heroes in Puerto Rico recovery

Luis Menendez, a mail man for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

By Hugh Bronstein

GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – With the Puerto Rico power grid shredded by Hurricane Maria, the U.S. Postal Service has taken the place of cellphone service at the forefront of island communications.

Only 15 percent of electrical power has been restored since the storm bludgeoned the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, but 99 of Puerto Rico’s 128 post offices are delivering mail. Tents have taken the place of post offices wrecked by Maria.

Mail carriers gather information on sick and elderly residents in far-flung parts where hospitals have closed. Data is fed into the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief office in San Juan so medical attention can be provided.

Restoration of the power grid is months away and many rural roads are blocked by mudslides, sink holes and downed trees and telephone poles. Since the start of the month the Postal Service has nonetheless been delivering letters and care packages to family members desperate for news.

“It’s been a clutch situation, and you guys have totally come through,” a FEMA worker was heard telling Postal Service Caribbean customer service manager Martin Caballero on Sunday.

“We might know the general area where people need help, but the mail carriers are the only ones who really have the exact addresses,” the FEMA worker told Reuters, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to news media.

Caballero regularly goes on AM radio, which can be heard by listeners lucky enough to have diesel to run generators, to tell people in inaccessible parts of the island where their mail is being held. He invites them to pick it up, but only when travel conditions become safe.

Even for urban middle-class customers in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, whose concrete homes were not smashed by the storm, it was a chore to recover their blown-away mailboxes or build new ones. Hurricane or not, the Postal Service will not drop off mail without a designated box.

“The wind took them all,” said resident Jenny Amador, a 42-year-old teachers’ assistant.

“I found mine in those trees,” she said, pointing to a gnarl of branches and trunks on the road. She re-attached her mailbox in a cockeyed position in front of her house, using a clothes hanger.

One plucky woman, having heard the postman was on the way, stood stoically with her mailbox tucked under her arm. No one minded when mail carrier Alfredo Martinez showed up out of uniform, unable to do laundry for lack of clean water.

One resident said the return of the mail service was comforting, a sign of a return to normalcy. But another greeted Martinez with a warning.

“If you are bringing me any utility bills, go away,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Howard Goller)

 

U.S. House committee examining barriers to Puerto Rico recovery: official

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump walks past hurricane wreckage as he participates in a walking tour with (L-R) first lady Melania Trump, Guaynabo Mayor Angel Perez Otero, FEMA Administrator Brock Long and Lt. General Jeffrey Buchanan in areas damaged by Hurricane Maria in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, U.S. on October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Stephanie Kelly

(Reuters) – The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources said it will work to identify red tape and other bureaucratic hurdles to speed up Puerto Rico’s recovery and rebuilding, as the island struggles to recover from the impact of Hurricane Maria.

Committee Chairman Rob Bishop said in a press call on Wednesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal partners will also likely be engaged for years in helping Puerto Rico get back on its feet.

Bishop added that an emergency response will be executed through FEMA and local officials.

“An emergency funding package is taking place as we speak to support those efforts,” he said.

On Tuesday a White House official told Reuters the White House was preparing a $29 billion disaster aid request to be sent to Congress after hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida.

The request was expected to come on Wednesday. It will combine nearly $13 billion in new relief for hurricane victims with $16 billion for the government-backed flood insurance program.

Bishop said under evaluation was also the question of whether to modify or give additional power to the oversight board tasked with overseeing Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were battered by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Hurricane Maria knocked out power to Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents last month, devastating the island’s already dilapidated electric power infrastructure.

Following a closed-door meeting of the committee, Puerto Rico’s Republican delegate, Jenniffer Gonzalez, told reporters there are ongoing discussions among members of Congress, White House aides and the Treasury Department over a possible short-term loan to Puerto Rico, which she said will face a liquidity crisis in November.

She said it was unclear whether Trump might be able to issue an executive order, if he so desired, to provide quick financial help or whether Congress would have to act.

Representative Raul Grijalva, the senior Democrat on the panel, said of PROMESA after the meeting: “I said let’s open it up and see what is working and see what is not applicable in this situation, what we need to suspend.”

PROMESA is the federal 2016 rescue law under which Puerto Rico in May filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly and Megan Davies in New York, and Richard Cowan in Washington; writing by Stephanie Kelly; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Bases)

San Juan mayor calls hurricane disaster ‘a people-are-dying’ story

Trump administration asks Congress for $29 billion in hurricane relief

By Robin Respaut and Dave Graham

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – The mayor of Puerto Rico’s hurricane-battered capital spoke on Friday of thirsty children drinking from creeks. A woman with diabetes said a lack of refrigeration had spoiled her insulin. An insurance adjuster said roads have virtually vanished on parts of the island.

In enumerable ways large and small, many of the 3.4 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico struggled through a 10th day with little or no access to basic necessities – from electricity and clean, running water to communications, food and medicine.

Carmen Yulin Cruz, mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, gave voice to rising anger on the U.S. island territory as she delivered a sharp retort on Friday to comments from a top Trump administration official who said the federal relief effort was a “a good news story.”

“Damn it, this is not a good news story,” Cruz told CNN. “This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story.”

Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, head of the parent department for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said on Thursday she was satisfied with the disaster response so far.

“I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane,” Duke said.

Paying a visit to Puerto Rico on Friday for an aerial tour of the island with Governor Ricardo Rossello, Duke moderated her message, telling reporters she was proud of the recovery work but adding that she and President Donald Trump would not be satisfied until the territory was fully functional.

Maria, the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, has killed at least 16 people on the island, according to the official death toll. More than 30 deaths have been attributed to the storm across the Caribbean.

Rossello has called the widespread heavy damage to Puerto Rico’s homes, roads and infrastructure unprecedented, though he has praised the U.S. government’s relief efforts.

Cruz, appearing in a later interview, bristled at suggestions that the relief effort had been well-coordinated.

“There is a disconnect between what the FEMA people are saying is happening and what the mayors and the people in the towns know that is happening,” Cruz, who has been living in a shelter since her own home was flooded, said on CNN.

Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Help us. We are dying,” Cruz said she was hopeful the situation would improve, but added, “People can’t fathom what it is to have children drinking from creeks, to have people in nursing homes without oxygen.”

‘WE ARE ALONE’

The mayor of San Germán, a town of about 35,000 in the southwestern corner of the island, echoed Cruz’s harsh words.

“The governor is giving a message that everything is resolved, and it is not true,” Mayor Isidro Negron Irizarry said in Spanish on Twitter. “There is no functional operations structure. We are alone.”

Trump, who was scheduled to visit next week, addressed the situation before a speech in Washington about his new tax plan.

“The electrical grid and other infrastructure were already in very, very poor shape,” he said. “And now virtually everything has been wiped out, and we will have to really start all over again. We’re literally starting from scratch.”

Colonel James DeLapp, the Army Corps of Engineers commander for Puerto Rico, told CNN that rebuilding the island’s crippled power grid was a massive undertaking.

“The closest thing we’ve had is when the Army Corps led the effort to restore Iraq’s electricity in the early stages of the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004,” he said.

Further complicating recovery is a financial crisis marked by Puerto Rico’s record bankruptcy filing in May and the weight of $72 billion in outstanding debt.

“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort, which will end up being one of the biggest ever, will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” Trump said.

‘ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES’

In Old San Juan, the capital’s historic colonial section, customers lined up on the sidewalk outside Casa Cortes ChocoBar cafe for sandwiches and coffee, being handed out from a small window between plywood planks clinging to the exterior wall.

“We’re one of the few restaurants that have a generator,” said Daniela Santini, 19, who works there. “Most businesses don’t have electricity, only some have water. We’re one of the lucky ones.”

Nancy Rivera, 59, a San Juan resident who suffers from diabetes, was forced to go without her medication by a lack of electricity. “I stopped using the insulin in my refrigerator. It’s too warm,” she said.

Ground transportation, hampered by fuel shortages and streets blocked with fallen vegetation and utility wires, remained a major challenge.

“You can’t see the roads,” said Alvaro Trueba, a regional catastrophe coordinator for property insurer Chubb Ltd, who told Reuters that adjusters face difficulties driving about the island.

More troops, medical supplies and vehicles were on the way to the island, but it will be some time before the U.S. territory is back on its feet, the senior U.S. general appointed to lead military relief operations said on Friday.

“We’re certainly bringing in more,” Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan told CNN on Friday, a day after he was appointed by the Pentagon.

The hardships on Puerto Rico have largely overshadowed similar struggles faced by the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, slammed by two major hurricanes – Irma and Maria – in the span of a month.

Most of St. Croix, the largest of the three major islands in that territory, remained without electricity and cellular communications nine days after Maria struck. Shelters were still packed and long lines stretched around emergency supply centers.

At one such facility, anguished residents pleaded for more than the single sheets of plastic tarp that National Guard troops were handing out.

Meanwhile, the insurance industry was tallying the mounting costs of Maria, with one modeling firm estimating that claims could total as much as $85 billion.

Rossello told CNN on Friday the federal government has responded to his requests and that he was in regular contact with FEMA’s director, though more needed to be done.

“We do have severe logistical limitations. It has been enhancing, but it’s still nowhere near where it needs to be,” Rossello said.

Asked how long it would take for Puerto Rico to recover, Buchanan, the general leading the military effort, gave a slight sigh and said: “This is a very, very long duration.”

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Dave Graham in SAN JUAN, Doina Chiacu, Roberta Rampton, Justin Mitchell and Makini Brice in WASHINGTON, and Lisa Maria Garza in DALLAS and Suzanne Barlyn in NEW YORK; Writing by Bill Rigby and Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Mary Milliken)

Hurricane-ravaged U.S. cities hit by rising cleanup costs

FILE PHOTO: Flood-damaged contents from people's homes line the street following the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S., September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Rod Nickel

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Communities in Texas and Florida, each swamped by a hurricane within two weeks of one another, are rewriting debris removal contracts and paying millions of dollars more to lure trucks, as subcontractors say costs have jumped.

The willingness of communities to renegotiate such contracts in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida shows the limits of pre-planning for events as unpredictable as back-to-back hurricanes.

Higher fees, however, may not be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), even after these huge storms brought intense public pressure to clear millions of cubic yards of rubbish from streets and damaged furnishings from flooded homes and businesses.

In Texas, Houston is considering a 50-percent increase in pay for haulers and Harris County, which encompasses the city, is also offering incentives to recruit more trucks. In Florida, the City of Miami hiked its rates for debris removal by as much as double to DRC Emergency Services, CrowderGulf LLC and Ceres Environmental Services Inc, city documents show.

Local officials are rewriting contracts to attract subcontractors from other regions and businesses such as logging and dirt-hauling, citing a shortage of trucks to cart debris away because fleets are stretched across two devastated states. The removal business relies on networks of subcontracted trucks when disasters strike.

DRC’s subcontracting costs have jumped by at least 30 percent, said John Sullivan, president of the Galveston, Texas-based disaster specialist, shrinking margins to “almost nothing” as the company has to pay more to attract truck owners.

“It’s not a renegotiation, it’s a necessity,” Sullivan said. “The increase that we’re getting is all going to (pay) costs.”

Subcontractors often include out-of-state operators lured by the opportunity for a financial windfall.

Johnny Helaire, owner of Crossroads Trucking Service, said the Houston cleanup offers steady work at a time when his dirt and gravel business is slumping.

Each of Helaire’s 12 trucks earns on average $800 gross per day more in Houston than they would loading dirt, not counting hotel and food expenses, he said, while directing workers through a headset like a football coach.

Across the Texas Gulf Coast, Harvey left as much as 200 million cubic yards (153 million cubic meters) of trash that must be removed, the state has estimated.

Much of that still lines local streets. Houston’s director of solid waste management, Harry Hayes estimated that just 5 percent of the city’s debris had been cleared by Sept. 20.

“Houston ended up being ground zero. A thousand-year rain event is going to generate a wider field of debris, considering our population,” than in smaller Texan cities, Hayes said.

The city wants to increase its debris-hauling rate to $11.84 per cubic yard from $7.86, an amount that would help it get 200 more trucks from contractors, he said. Houston now has about 330 in service.

DRC expects to handle 2.5 million cubic yards in the Houston area alone. On that basis, Houston’s pay increase would amount to $10 million more.

Officials delayed a vote on the rate increase on Wednesday as they sought more information.

Harris County, one of the most populous U.S. counties, is offering incentives worth an additional $3 to $5 per cubic yard because small trucks cannot profit at the rate for trucks with bigger capacity, said county engineer John Blount.

Paying more for trucks is critical to recruiting more away from their normal businesses, said Glen Nelson, owner of DNR Group, which specializes in disaster clean-up. Even so, he said he is earning half of what he did for Hurricane Katrina cleanup in 2005.

RAISING FEES “SMELLS”

Bruce Hotze, treasurer of Houston watchdog group Let the People Vote, said offering to increase payments to disposal companies “smells.”

“If they needed prices to go up it should have happened before the hurricane,” he said.

Texan cities Rockport and Corpus Christi, both near where Harvey made first landfall, said they will not pay more.

“You hold those contractors accountable to provide what they said they would provide for you,” said Mike Donoho, Rockport’s public works director.

Alabama-based CrowderGulf has not asked communities for higher pay because of the risk that those fees will not be reimbursed by FEMA, said Chief Operating Officer Ashley Ramsay-Naile. Some of its contracts state that CrowderGulf will not get paid for amounts that FEMA does not cover, she said.

FEMA reimburses 90 percent of debris expenses, and covers pay above contracted rates only if municipalities show it is justified, said FEMA spokeswoman Barb Sturner.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Houston; editing by Gary McWilliams and Marcy Nicholson)