Exactly two years ago, flood waters from Hurricane Maria submerged entire neighborhoods in the town of Toa Baja in Puerto Rico's northern coast. To survive, some residents fled their homes and broke into a school to seek refuge.
Some of these survivors now run a new community nonprofit spearheading recovery efforts and seeking ways to get the funding and resources they need to rebuild their lives and their towns.
“The hurricane made them leaders,” said Carla Alonso, who leads an islandwide community initiative through Espacios Abiertos, a nonprofit that promotes government transparency and civic engagement.
But one of the biggest obstacles impeding community groups from gaining access to much needed funding and resources — amid questions about the government's response — is the lack of a robust, ongoing philanthropic presence on the U.S. territory, an issue that has been acutely felt these past two years.
This void is especially notable as the island’s recovery continues to be dogged with questions about both the federal and local government's response — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after-action report acknowledging emergency response failures to the more recent arrest of a top FEMA official accused of post-hurricane fraud. Added to that is the uncertainty over the collapse of the administration of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
Leaders "the hurricane made"
Migdalia Pérez, who attends Alonso’s community workshops, is one of the many leaders “the hurricane made.” She joined other Toa Baja residents who survived the floods to create the Association of United Communities Taking Solidarity Action, better known by their Spanish acronym Acutas.
The community nonprofit informally started days after Hurricane Maria, the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in a century, killed at least 2, 975 people in Puerto Rico and prompted the world's second-longest blackout.
Neighbors gathered in a house devastated by floods to share the little resources they had. Almost without realizing it, they had created a community support space that served as a collection center for donations, among other services.
In that process, they developed bonds with organizations in Puerto Rico and on the mainland U.S. that continue to fund community efforts in Acutas such as after-school programs for children, mental health services and initiatives to foster small businesses.
“Our leadership is born out of the perfect combination of women — who are normally the heads of the household, the mothers, the ones caring for elders — witnessing the dire need first hand, veteran community leaders in the neighborhood and the arrival of external volunteers,” said Michy Rexach, who is part of Acutas’ executive board.
Exactly one year ago, Acutas was formally incorporated as a nonprofit, Rexach said.
“Acutas rises in the middle of a tragedy,” Pérez told NBC News in Spanish. “We want this model to be replicated throughout the island.”
But that has proven to be a harder task than community leaders first realized.
“On nobody's radar” before Maria
In a given year, U.S. philanthropic foundations were only directing an average of $5.8 million annually to Puerto Rico. An analysis of grant data published by the Foundation Center, also known as Candid, shows that from 2011 to 2015, the island of 3.2 million people received about $29 million.
“For many years, we were on nobody's radar screen,” Nancy Santiago Negrón, vice president of strategic partnerships and communications at Hispanics in Philanthropy, said. “So, for a place as large as Puerto Rico to have only gotten $3 to $5 million [a year] in philanthropic funding is ridiculous.”
In the wake of the island’s crippling fiscal crisis, private grant-making rose from 2015 to 2016. Candid said in a statement that Puerto Rico received over 300 grants in each of those years, worth $13.5 million in 2015 and $15.4 million in 2016.
Santiago Negrón attributes the lack of philanthropic funding to foundations' refusal to meaningfully understand Puerto Rico’s nonprofit landscape.
But there’s another obstacle for many nonprofit organizations on the island — the island's tax structure.
Though the island's government recognizes certain groups as charities or nonprofits, U.S. foundations don't recognize nonprofits without what's called 501 (c)(3) status.
“Puerto Rico's nonprofit system, for many years, didn't require 501(c)(3) status because people don't file federal taxes in Puerto Rico; 501(c)(3) is a federal status," Santiago Negrón said. "So we had to do a lot of work to help our nonprofits in Puerto Rico get that status because funds can't flow."
Acutas is currently in the process of getting 501(c)3 standing, Rexach said. But at times, during Maria’s immediate aftermath, the group had to rely on bigger organizations with the appropriate federal standing that had the capacity to get grants and disburse them to local groups.
Foundation for Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that promotes social and economic development, was one of them. Rexach said the organization got a grant from AARP to help Acutas fund brigades of young people to help clean elders’ destroyed homes.
Mainland Puerto Ricans step up
“Puerto Rico has not been a priority for philanthropy,” according to a December 2018 report from the Puerto Rico Funders Network, a nonprofit seeking to promote strategic philanthropic investments on the island.
But after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, “Puerto Rico is on philanthropy’s radar,” the report stated — and a significant amount of funding came from fellow Puerto Ricans on the mainland U.S.
The Funders Network found that 41 donors accounted for nearly $400 million in philanthropic contributions post-Maria. More than half came from stateside Puerto Ricans.
“The diaspora came up with $216 million, and we still dwarfed what philanthropy was doing and they had the capacity to do so much more, but chose not to,” said Santiago Negrón, who is of Puerto Rican descent.
According to Candid, the island received 849 grants, increasing philanthropy funding for Puerto Rico to $61.1 million after Hurricane Maria.
“For many of the foundations that came after Maria, it was their first time working in Puerto Rico,” Annie Mayol, president and chief operating officer of Foundation for Puerto Rico, told NBC. “Our main focus now has to be on bringing in more support for Puerto Rico and the importance of a multisectoral approach, in terms of funding,” combining public and private sectors as well as philanthropy.
PRxPR, an organization launched by Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, is one of Acutas' main donors because they “saw potential in this community” when we were starting off, Rexach said.
Lenis Rodríguez, who has been a community leader in the town of Yabucoa for 16 years, said that connections between community organizations on the island and stateside Puerto Ricans seeking to help strengthened after widespread reports of shipping containers full of provisions for hurricane survivors were not finding their way to those in need.
“We had never received a shipment container in our lives,” he said in Spanish. “But we gathered help from the church, truck drivers, other volunteers, and we did it.”
For Acutas, their relationship with stateside Puerto Ricans and island-based groups such as Mano a Mano ayudando a Puerto Rico and Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción, helped fill some of the funding gaps they face while trying to organize in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
But for Santiago Negrón, the experiences of these leaders should serve as an opportunity to reflect on changes national foundations could implement to guarantee access to funding for those in need.
She recommends foundations move away from the traditional grant-making in order to quickly adapt responses to a fast-moving crisis, as well as provide multiyear and general operating support that can be used flexibly by organizations responding to shifting conditions.
Philanthropic groups should also be promoting the creation of livable salaries and health benefits for those working on the front lines, where burnout is a common side effect of the constant crisis response.
In the meantime, community leaders like Lenis Rodríguez in Yabucoa tout the connections they have made with mainland Puerto Rican groups in states like Illinois, New York, Arizona and Florida. They're still helping Yabucoa beyond the hurricane's aftermath.
"Two years later," said Rodríguez, "these are the same organizations helping me get kids ready for back to school, with supplies and backpacks."