After hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were denied FEMA assistance to rebuild their homes after Hurricane Maria, most of the families who have appealed the agency's decision have not received aid.
FEMA has either denied or not answered 79 percent — almost eight-in-ten — of the appeals, leaving residents and officials worried about the fate of their dwellings as the island faces another hurricane season.
After denying at least 335,748 applications from thousands of Puerto Ricans asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for disaster assistance to fix their hurricane-ravaged homes, many decided to appeal the agency's decision to not grant them aid.
As of July 12, “there have been more than 43,000 appealed cases from survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Of those, more than 7,500 have been approved and more than 34,000 have been deemed ineligible,” said Lenisha Smith, a FEMA spokesperson, in a statement to NBC News.
According to FEMA, applicants can be “deemed ineligible” if they were not able to prove sufficient damage, or if the applicant could not be contacted for an inspection — which is required to receive aid — or if the agency was unable to prove the applicant's identity, occupancy or the home ownership status.
One of the biggest issues after the hurricane was proving ownership among families who lacked a title or deeds to their home.
Ramón A. Paez Marte, 44, who lives in the Comunidad Valle Hill in the town of Canóvanas, provided FEMA with a letter from town officials acknowledging that he owns his home and has lived there for roughly 20 years.
“The last letter we got from them [FEMA] said that we haven’t demonstrated that we are the owners [of the home],” he said about his appeal case.
He said FEMA can bring "federal agents, the DEA, FBI, all the people you want" to investigate if he owns his property. "The truth is that we’re here because this is ours and the only document proving that is that letter from the mayor’s office,” Paez Marte said.
In the meantime, Paez Marte's house still has a part of its roof missing as well as a broken door.
Aside from issues with property deeds, FEMA's Smith cited other reasons for denials or delays.
“Please keep in mind that there may be factors to consider like the duplicate registrations per household,” Smith said. “Another thing to consider is that we could be waiting for further documentation from survivors to complete the application before determining eligibility.”
However, if an applicant does “not hold a formal title to the residence and pays no rent, but is responsible for the payment of taxes or maintenance of the residence,” FEMA can still be able to verify their ownership status, according to agency guidelines.
"Inconsistent," say advocates about approvals, denials
Adi Martínez Román, lawyer and executive director of Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance in civil cases for people in need, said she found FEMA’s way of denying and granting aid to be highly inconsistent. Even when FEMA regulations do not require formal title papers, sometimes even having a property title didn't guarantee FEMA aid to applicants.
Martínez Román saw cases in which FEMA denied aid to people with deeds.
“There were people who had the formal deed of property title,” she said. “This document doesn't necessarily identify the property with a specific address. They read something like, the property defined in the north by the boundary with the property of the family so and so, and to the south… Addresses were not traditionally used in property title deeds.”
Martínez Román explained that this became a problem when FEMA would cross reference information about the home: electricity bills, phone bills, etc. “They would say, but wait a minute, this information doesn’t match. And the lawyers would have to step in and explain to them how these documents worked differently.”
In other cases, she saw FEMA grant aid to applicants who had no formal title deeds to their property but were able to present other types of documents such as a sworn Affidavit that describes how long they have been living at the disaster-damaged home, that they are in charge of the maintenance cost of the property, and an explanation as to why the formal documents are unavailable or other type of evidence.
According to an article in El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, attorneys and families also cited issues around FEMA's inspection practices, a process necessary for the agency to verify ownership. Some claim inspectors didn't speak Spanish, did not go inside the homes or did not come back if the homeowners weren't there.
During what FEMA described as a “record breaking” hurricane season, the agency counted with a smaller total budget compared to the year before. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s budget brief for fiscal year 2018, the president’s budget for FEMA was $15,552,106,000. The amount shows a 3.7 percent decrease — equal to $599,645,000 — from in fiscal year 2017.
As Puerto Rico grapples with hundreds of thousands of families who have not received any FEMA assistance for their damaged homes, the island and the federal government have announced other initiatives to address the issue of housing and rebuilding.
The Puerto Rico Department of Housing is developing a disaster recovery action plan to put community development programs in place with the help of the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency that would help rebuild neighborhoods and existing infrastructure. If HUD approves the plan, Puerto Rican officials estimate that the programs will begin in September.
In May, HUD gave Puerto Rico an $18.5 billion grant, the largest single amount of disaster recovery assistance awarded in the agency's history. It also allocated $1.5 billion to the island in February — bringing the agency's total investment in Puerto Rico’s recovery to $20 billion.
“These public funds could be used to deal with the issues caused by floods and the issues around property titles,” Jeniffer González, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said during the announcement.
Puerto Rican officials have to comply with a strict protocol that includes public hearings and clear public plans in order for HUD to disburse the funds, meaning that it will be several months before Puerto Rico can actually spend the money in reconstruction efforts.
In the meantime, Paez Marte said that, with the help of lawyers from Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, he's going to resend his home documentation with a new letter and “try again because this is not fair.”
“I don’t live here because I want to,” Paez Marte said. “No one that lives here, lives here willingly. We’re here because we truly have nowhere else to go.”