Puerto Rico sees more pain and little progress three years after Hurricane Maria

"I can tell you that Puerto Rico's recovery, if it can be called that, didn't come thanks to the government," said a community social worker on the island.
Image: Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico
A man walks past destroyed homes in Catano, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, 2017.Hector Retamal / AFP - Getty Images file

Angel Perez was on his way to visit his parents in his native Arecibo, a coastal town in Puerto Rico about an hour west of where he lives in Trujillo Alto, when a flash flood blocked his route early last week.

"There was some rain, but there was no indication that they were dangerous. All the neighbors were at home. No one expected this," said Perez, 35. Despite his efforts to gather neighbors and clean up clogged sewers, community members say they have long lacked proper maintenance. Several families lost everything after 6 feet of water rushed into their homes, he said.

The scene reminded him of Hurricane Maria's aftermath.

"As a community social worker, I can tell you that Puerto Rico's recovery, if it can be called that, didn't come thanks to the government. It came from nonprofit associations, it came from the neighbors themselves. It came from foundations. It came from the hands of other people who supported the families that suffered the most," Perez said in Spanish.

Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, 2017, ultimately killing at least 2,975 people; it was the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years.

Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria in Lares, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 6, 2017.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans left for the mainland, many temporarily and some permanently. Island residents had no full power for almost a year. The health system was overwhelmed, and an understaffed forensics sciences department couldn't keep up with the bodies piling up.

Three years later, there's frustration that crises have only compounded — there have been a series of destructive earthquakes and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic — while the Trump administration and island officials haven't made any real progress updating the island's antiquated electrical grid and rebuilding destroyed houses.

"If you put somebody in power, here in Puerto Rico or in the U.S., that's not prepared to lead, it's going to cost you lives, and it's going to cost you progress," said Miguel Soto-Class, founder and president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to talk about this as a life-or-death issue, because that's exactly what we're seeing."

Hurricane Maria resulted in about $90 billion in damage, making it the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history. In December, Puerto Rico was hit by a sequence of seismic events that triggered multiple strong earthquakes that brought down hundreds of homes and schools in January. Well over 9,800 tremors have been registered on the island since then.

Coronavirus cases and deaths are also rising in Puerto Rico as the island grapples with austerity measures while it works to get out of the largest municipal bankruptcy proceeding in U.S. history.

A man walks by downed electricity poles in the Punta Santiago beachfront neighborhood in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 8, 2017.Ricardo Arduengo / for NBC News

The federal government has allocated nearly $50 billion to help the island with multiple disasters. But most of the money, specifically funds for housing and infrastructure relief, hasn't made its way to communities on the island. Puerto Rico has received $16.7 billion, according to its Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience.

Over the same time period, President Donald Trump has doubled down several times on previous comments opposing disaster funding for Puerto Rico while disputing the hurricane's death toll and failing to acknowledge such deaths.

"We've seen so much fanfare around these federal funds in the past that never actually get here or, once you look at the fine print, there are so many restrictions," Soto-Class said.

The Trump administration said Friday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will award almost $13 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico's electrical grid and education system in the next five to seven years, "the largest obligations of funding ever awarded." But Congress had approved such aid in 2018. Trump and members of his administration made it available to Puerto Rico two years later and 43 days before November's presidential elections.

"It's very ironic that it happened so close to the elections," Soto-Class said.

An aerial view of the flooded neighborhood of Juana Matos after Hurricane Maria in Cataño, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 22, 2017.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images file

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter Brown, who was appointed as the White House's special representative for Puerto Rico's disaster recovery this year, said that the efforts were months in the making and that they were unrelated to the political timeline of the election.

"The development of this estimate has been a bulky process, and our goal was always to get out this announcement as quickly as possible. We've been literally working on it for months," Brown said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development had previously approved $20 billion for the island's reconstruction, a historic amount. But the agency knowingly stalled release of the aid last year to impose additional restrictions and requirements on how Puerto Rico could gain access to the funds, citing corruption and financial mismanagement concerns.

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The highest-profile public corruption case involving disaster recovery funds involved federal employees — two FEMA officials who were charged with fraud and bribery surrounding $1.8 billion in contracts to restore Puerto Rico's power grid.

"There's always been concern about the ability of the government of Puerto Rico to effectively manage a level of money that so vastly exceeds their normal annual operating budgets," Brown said. But he said he remains confident that money will flow in a timely manner and with proper oversight, because relationships between the local and federal governments have "significantly improved over the past year," he said.

Soto-Class said: "But you need to have oversight that works. It can't be punishment disguised as oversight."

Elizabeth Parilla feeds her pets in front of her damaged home in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 27, 2017.Victor J. Blue / Redux Pictures

Puerto Rico's first major program to rebuild homes hasn't completed a single one, even though tens of thousands of homes still have damaged roofs, many of them still covered with blue tarps. The program, known as R3, which is funded by HUD, is the biggest effort by the local government to carry out major repairs.

'Recovered however they could'

Perez was one of the many Puerto Ricans who took breaks from their day jobs to "basically became a carpenter for a year" and to join churches and other groups working to rebuild people's roofs.

"Those who lost their homes three years ago recovered however they could. Many then experienced the earthquakes, and many others lost their jobs because of the pandemic" Perez said. "You have so many families struggling, and it's difficult to remain optimistic, even when officials announce big amounts of money, because we know that money will be stuck in a bank account somewhere for a long time while people suffer."

A man stands on a car on a flooded street after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 25, 2017.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Nearly 27,000 homeowners have applied for R3 assistance since some of the federal funding to run the program was released a year and a half ago. Puerto Rican officials have said they're almost done repairing the first 45 homes set to benefit from the program, but no rebuilding job has been completed yet.

Last month, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor acknowledged that the only hospital on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques hasn't been rebuilt since it was destroyed in 2017. The agency made $39.5 million available to Vieques to rebuild the hospital in January.

At the same time that the federal government has been slow to make recovery funds available, the Puerto Rican government has also been slow to spend the already-disbursed funds.

"That's on us," Soto-Class said, "although not completely on us, because there are also a lot of restrictions for the funds, but a lot of it is on us." Some of the failures of the Puerto Rican government can be attributed to years of federally imposed austerity measures that have led to the "institutional collapse" of government agencies key to the recovery, he said.

"If we continue to do it how we've been doing it, it's going to be impossible," Soto-Class said. "It's not going to happen, and that's what we've seen in the last three years, very little movement."

The 3.2 million Puerto Ricans on the island can't vote in the presidential election, but they will be electing their governor and other local leaders on Nov. 3. The same day, Puerto Ricans who have relocated to the mainland U.S. will be voting in the presidential election.

"There's a new discourse on the island ahead of the elections," Perez said. "People are ready to elect leaders who are ready to treat Puerto Rico in a humane way."

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CORRECTION (Sept. 20, 2020, 9:55 p.m. ET): A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misstated when Elizabeth Parilla was pictured feeding her pets. The photo was taken in September 2017, not this month.