Judge orders further extension of aid to Puerto Rico storm evacuees

FILE PHOTO: Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria are seen in Lares, Puerto Rico, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Nate Raymond

WORCESTER, Mass. (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday extended until Aug. 31 an order preventing the eviction of hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and have been living in hotels and motels across the United States.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts, issued the order after hearing arguments over whether he should issue a longer-term injunction barring the federal government from cutting off housing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had planned to end the assistance program on June 30. Hillman’s decision on Wednesday extended a previously-imposed temporary restraining order that allowed the families to remain in hotels until checkout time on Aug. 7.

Hillman extended the order to allow the government time to respond to new arguments raised by lawyers representing evacuees in a proposed class action challenging FEMA’s actions.

“It’s going to take us time sort through this,” he said.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with winds close to 150 miles per hour (240 kph), causing an estimated $90 billion in damage to the already economically struggling U.S. territory.

According to FEMA, 1,040 families displaced by Maria are currently receiving aid under a program that pays for hotel lodging. In total, the program has since its launch helped 7,032 families displaced by Maria, FEMA said.

Critics have said the federal government responded poorly to the disaster and provided inadequate aid. They contend that President Donald Trump’s administration viewed Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens, a claim it denies.

Four Puerto Ricans are pursuing the lawsuit, which was filed in June and contends that FEMA’s actions violate their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Lawyers for the displaced Puerto Ricans argued in court that FEMA is legally obligated to continue to provide assistance to the evacuees, who they contend face potential homelessness if the program is prematurely ended without providing other assistance.

“They have no place to go back to, and what they’re seeking is assistance from the agency that already promised to give it to them,” said Natasha Bannan, an attorney with the advocacy organization LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

But Danielle Wolfson Young, a lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department representing FEMA, argued that the families had no right to continued assistance.

“FEMA has the discretion to implement and also to determine when to end the program,” she said.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in; Worcester; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. judge grants reprieve to Puerto Ricans facing eviction

Jaykarey Skerett, a Puerto Rican mother whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, sits with her two sons for an interview in her hotel room in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. July 2 2018. Picture taken July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Joey Roule

By Joey Roulette

KISSIMMEE, Fl. (Reuters) – A federal judge will hold a hearing on Monday that could determine the fate of hundreds of Puerto Ricans who fled the hurricane-ravaged island last year and are lodging in motels, after granting them a reprieve from eviction over the weekend.

The last benefits of a federal aid program for Hurricane Maria evacuees from the island had been set to run out on Sunday morning, cutting off housing assistance for the group residing in state-side motels.

But late on Saturday U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin of Massachusetts ordered the U.S. government to extend the aid for hotel vouchers to at least check-out time on July 4. At the hearing, he could decide whether to extend it further.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said 1,722 families are currently receiving aid under its housing program, 585 of whom reside in Central Florida motels.

FEMA said in a statement on Sunday it was aware of the judge’s decision and was contacting vendors to comply with the court order.

U.S. Democratic Representative Darren Soto, whose Kissimmee district includes Puerto Ricans facing eviction, said a displaced family can either remain in the hotel with the looming fear of losing aid or take a free flight back to the island.

“There’s a couple tough decisions people really have to make,” Soto told reporters.

Hurricane Maria dealt a vicious blow to an already struggling island that has been in recession for more than a decade, with a poverty rate near 50 percent.

Maria destroyed or significantly damaged more than a third of about 1.2 million occupied homes on the island, the government estimates.

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.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Study hikes Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria death toll to 4,645

Graves destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017, are seen at a cemetery, in Lares, Puerto Rico February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Gene Emery

(Reuters Health) – Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of 4,645 people in Puerto Rico last year and not the 64 long pegged by the island’s government as the official death toll, according to a survey of thousands of residents by a research team led by Harvard University.

The researchers estimated that most victims of the storm died between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, 2017, as a direct or indirect result of Puerto Rico’s worst natural disaster in 90 years. One-third perished because of delayed or interrupted medical care.

While cautioning that the estimate of 4,645 victims may be too low, the researchers said the numbers “underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico.”

The tally, reported online on Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, is likely to be controversial because it is far higher than previous independent estimates.

The emergency response to the disaster became highly politicized and provoked criticism of President Donald Trump, who was faulted when much of the U.S. territory remained without power for months.

Puerto Rico’s government released a statement on Tuesday welcoming the study and saying it would analyze it further.

In the aftermath of the storm, Puerto Rico commissioned George Washington University to conduct an independent study into the death toll, the results of which are due soon.

“As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities. We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported,” Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration said in the government statement.

The chief author of the new study, Caroline Buckee of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Maria, a major hurricane with winds close to 150 miles (241 km) per hour, caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to an island already struggling economically and many residents have subsequently left.

There is a wide margin for error in the study authored by Buckee. While the researchers estimated 4,645 deaths, the actual number could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498, the study showed.

The tally of 4,645 dead is more than four times higher than a December estimate by the New York Times, which said the actual death toll was probably about 1,052.

A Pennsylvania State University study put the number at 1,085.

The Buckee team randomly conducted in-person surveys of 3,299 of the estimated 1.1 million Puerto Rican households earlier this year, making sure to include remote areas.

Respondents were not paid and were asked if a household member had died directly or indirectly as a result of the storm. Missing people were not counted as deaths. Respondents were also asked about deaths within a five-minute walking distance of their homes.

The Buckee team also said that in the aftermath of the storm households went, on average, 68 days without water, 84 days without electricity and 41 days without cell phone coverage. In the most remote areas, 83 percent of the households were still without power by Dec. 31.

(Reporting by Gene Emery; Additional reporting by Daniel Bases in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)

Puerto Rico power grid braces for hurricane season

Jose Alvarez, 60, uses a head lamp while walking in the dark as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Jayuya, Puerto Rico May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. federal agency tasked with restoring electricity to Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean last year, is leaving the island though thousands still have no power heading into the next hurricane season starting next month.

Only a last-minute request from the governor of the island, bemoaning the “fragile state” of the power grid, managed to keep most of the generators brought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Puerto Rican soil for another six months.

The remaining generators might help keep the lights on for hospitals or police stations if the island gets hit again during the coming hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Contractors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install an electricity pole as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Contractors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install an electricity pole as the island’s fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September, leaving 1.5 million homes and businesses in the dark. Both the island’s power utility and the Trump Administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency were criticized for a slow response.

Most power has been restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but the electricity grid remains unreliable, and suffered an island-wide blackout last month.

“The whole world is very nervous about hurricane time,” said Rosalina Abreu Gonzalez, who lives near Mariana, on the eastern side of the island, where power has still not been restored. “There is a real concern – the government hasn’t provided an energy system that is more secure.”

The Army Corps, a unit of the U.S. armed forces, has said its task is largely complete now that most people have power. About 22,000 customers are still without electricity, most in remote areas, according to the new head of the island’s power utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

“Our mission wasn’t to build a modern resilient system,” Charles Alexander, Director of Contingency Operations and Homeland Security Headquarters at the Army Corps, said at a Senate hearing last week.

On April 29, Governor Ricardo Rossello asked U.S. officials to leave behind 850 generators at critical facilities, along with three larger generators used to keep the grid stable. FEMA agreed to leave the mega-generators and generators for 700 critical facilities. Mega-generators supply 75 megawatts of power, enough to power 75,000 homes.

New PREPA Chief Executive Walter Higgins, who has only been on the job for two months, said he is focusing on emergency procedures in the event of another disaster in coming months.

He said there is a plan for building a more resilient grid in the future. Higgins took over from Ricardo Ramos, who resigned as CEO in November after coming under fire for signing unvetted, little-known contractors to restore power, rather than immediately ask for assistance from other utilities.

“Unfortunately, pain causes learning, and what we’ve learned is how to get mutual assistance called for and on the island immediately,” Higgins told Reuters.

Residents of La Chorrera neighbourhood carry an electricity pole as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Bae

Residents of La Chorrera neighbourhood carry an electricity pole as the island’s fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Still, PREPA’s grid lacks buried power lines or reinforced poles, common in other hurricane prone areas. The power utility ran up an $8 billion debt over many years, largely due to poor bill collection, causing the system to fall into disrepair.

“It is very hard to see these messages where the government is saying we’re ready for next season. We’re not,” said Sheylda Diaz, a biology professor who lives near Utuado, in the island’s center, where some lines and poles have yet to be fixed.

The Army Corps will not provide further line restoration after Friday, FEMA said.

“People here have no idea that they are leaving,” said Abreu Gonzalez, who runs a center where people without power can go for meals.

Higgins said he sympathizes with those who want the Corps to remain. “I can understand why somebody would want them to stay longer, as long as there’s a single customer out.”

Maria hit shortly after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma slammed the U.S. mainland in 2017, but in both cases, power was largely restored within a week.

“I cannot imagine a scenario where 20,000-plus Texans or 20,000 Floridians were without power and FEMA would make that decision,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico. “I think that’s reprehensible.”

(Reporting By Jessica Resnick-Ault; Editing by Diane Craft)

Puerto Rico restores power to over 70 percent of customers after blackout

A general view shows buildings after Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island's power company, said Wednesday that a major power line failure in southern Puerto Rico cut electricity to almost all customers, in San Juan, Puerto Rico April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Gabriel Lopez Albarran

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Puerto Rico’s power company said it had restored power to over 1.1 million homes and businesses by Thursday morning after a transmission line failure cut service to almost all of the island’s 3.4 million residents the day before.

The Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, was working to restore power to the less than 30 percent of customers in the U.S. territory still without power after Wednesday morning’s blackout.

The power line failure in southern Puerto Rico was the latest in a string of operational and political headaches for the bankrupt, storm-ravaged power utility.

The utility has struggled to escape the headlines since Hurricane Maria wiped out power to all of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

Maria, the worst storm to hit the island in 90 years, devastated Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, and thousands were still without power at the time of Wednesday’s blackout.

PREPA said on Twitter that several power plants were back in service, including units at Central Aguirre, EcoElectrica, Central Costa Sur, Yabucoa and Palo Seco.

The blackout was caused by the failure of a 230-kilovolt transmission line between the oil-fired Aguirre generating complex in Salinas and AES Corp’s <AES.N> coal-fired power plant in Guayama, PREPA said in a statement on Wednesday.

PREPA estimated on Wednesday that it would take 24 to 36 hours to restore service to all customers that had power before Wednesday’s blackout.

Before the outage, PREPA said 1.43 million homes and businesses had electric service. That is 97.2 percent of the utility’s 1.47 million total customers.

Many of the remaining 40,000 customers have been without power since Hurricane Maria.

PREPA has suffered several blackouts since the storm, including an outage last week affecting about 870,000 customers, and has been in bankruptcy since July, owing some $9 billion to mutual funds, hedge funds and other investors.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Puerto Rico asks Congress for help with delayed disaster relief loan

A woman waits as municipal workers distribute water and ice provided by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017, in Comerio, Puerto Rico January 31, 2018. Picture taken January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Hilary Russ

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury has delayed a $4.7 billion post-hurricane loan to Puerto Rico and reduced the amount by more than half, and the resulting financial strain threatens to disrupt essential services, the island’s governor said in a letter asking U.S. congressional leaders to intervene.

Congress approved the community disaster loan in October as part of a larger relief package after hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated the island, which was already dealing with the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history.

But four months later, the U.S. territory still has not received the loan. Last week, the Treasury said it wanted to shrink the amount to $2.065 billion and impose special terms and conditions, according to Governor Ricardo Rossello’s letter, dated Feb. 26.

The Puerto Rico government “may be forced to cut deeply into its liquidity reserves and make the untenable choice of which essential services to cut so that it can maintain other essential services,” Rossello wrote.

The risk of interruption to the island’s electric, water, sewer or other utilities is a direct result of Treasury’s “misguided delay and policy decisions,” he said.

Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s worst natural disaster in nine decades, hit as the island was trudging through an unprecedented economic crisis.

The island declared a form of bankruptcy last May, shouldering some $120 billion in combined bond and pension debt.

Community disaster loans – which are usually forgiven – are just one form of disaster relief. The island’s latest fiscal recovery plan assumes $49.1 billion of federal disaster aid altogether.

The Treasury “intimated that the loans will not be forgiven under any circumstance” and focused more on repayment than on relief for the island’s residents, Rossello’s letter said.

The delayed federal loan has also forced the island’s government “to rely on its own limited liquidity to fund an emergency loan to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority,” or PREPA, Rossello’s letter said.

The strained electric utility will need yet another cash infusion in the next 30 to 45 days, he said.

Officials from the Treasury Department and other agencies met on Monday with the Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board to discuss terms under which the U.S. government will offer community disaster loans to Puerto Rico, Treasury said in a statement.

It said the conditions would include “important steps that will be taken to protect federal taxpayer investments while ensuring funding is available quickly when needed.”

The Treasury Department said Puerto Rico could use the money to make loans to PREPA and other public corporations.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ in New York; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)

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)

Trump Cabinet officials to visit Puerto Rico to assess recovery

Trump Cabinet officials to visit Puerto Rico to assess recovery

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet are set to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday to assess the U.S. territory’s rebuilding in the three months since Hurricane Maria devastated homes, businesses and the power grid.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson will travel to Puerto Rico, where about a third of the island’s 3.4 million residents are still without power, hundreds remain in shelters, and thousands have fled to the U.S. mainland.

The visit comes as Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday were planning to unveil a disaster aid package totaling $81 billion, according to a senior congressional aide. Some of that aid would go to Puerto Rico, but also to states like Texas and Florida that were hit by other hurricanes and to California, which is grappling with wild fires.

Even before Maria savaged Puerto Rico, the island was contending with $72 billion in debt. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has asked the federal government for a total of $94.4 billion in aid, including $31.1 billion for housing and $17.8 billion to rebuild its ruined power grid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has so far approved more than $660 million in aid for individuals in Puerto Rico as well as more than $450 million in public assistance.

Nielsen and Carson will receive detailed briefings on rebuilding efforts and see how federal aid is helping residents to recover, a DHS official said.

Nielsen, who oversees FEMA, and Rossello are slated to hold a news conference.

The visit comes as Congress prepares to vote on a tax overhaul bill that Puerto Rican officials have said they fear will hurt the commonwealth’s pharmaceutical manufacturing sector – the cornerstone of the island’s economy – at a time when Puerto Rico can least afford to lose jobs and tax revenue.

Puerto Rico’s government has said 64 people died because of the hurricane, but after multiple media estimates of dramatically higher figures, Rossello on Monday ordered an official review of the death toll.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Leslie Adler)