Six months af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria, Puerto Rico pleads for as­sis­tance

South Florida Times - - CARRIBEAN - By As­so­ci­ated Press Puerto Rico re­mains con­sumed by dev­as­ta­tion.

DAN­ICA COTO

COROZAL, Puerto Rico - Hur­ri­cane Maria shred­ded the elec­tric poles in this plan­tain farm­ing town high in the moun­tains of cen­tral Puerto Rico, leav­ing tens of thou­sands of peo­ple with­out power or run­ning wa­ter. Des­per­ate, res­i­dents of the town's Bar­rio Mana neigh­bor­hood asked fed­eral of­fi­cials for a gen­er­a­tor to pump wa­ter from the well that sup­plies the neigh­bor­hood's 130 fam­i­lies.

That was nearly six months ago. Today, like every­one in Bar­rio Mana, World War II vet­eran An­to­nio Mo­rales, 93, sleeps in a sin­gle-story con­crete home with no run­ning wa­ter, its floor cov­ered with dozens of gal­lon jugs and plas­tic buck­ets of wa­ter that his nurse uses to bathe him. “Bar­rio Mana is not even on the govern­ment's radar,'' said Mo­rales' 61-year-old daugh­ter-in-law, Maria Perez, her eyes filled with tears.“Prac­ti­cally no one has shown up here.''

Su­per-charged with en­ergy from un­usu­ally warm seas, Hur­ri­cane Maria caused roughly $100 bil­lion in dam­age to Puerto Rico when it roared across the is­land Sept. 20, ac­cord­ing to the govern­ment of the U.S. ter­ri­tory. In Novem­ber, Puerto Rico asked Congress for $94 bil­lion to fund needs rang­ing from power restora­tion to home re­pairs.

U.S. law­mak­ers have ap­pro­pri­ated $23 bil­lion in di­rect aid, a re­sponse that some Puerto Ri­can of­fi­cials called woe­fully in­ad­e­quate. Separately, the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency has spent some $6 bil­lion for Puerto Rico from its stand­ing emer­gency funds since the hur­ri­cane.

As the six-month an­niver­sary of the Cat­e­gory 4 storm ap­proaches, only a frac­tion of the $23 bil­lion in con­gres­sion­ally ap­proved funds has ac­tu­ally been spent in Puerto Rico. In Fe­bru­ary, a $4.7 bil­lion loan ap­proved last year for Texas, Florida, the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands and Puerto Rico was re­duced by the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment to $2 bil­lion for Puerto Rico, none of which has been dis­bursed. And pro­grams funded with FEMA money, like gen­er­a­tors for ru­ral wells, have yet to reach thou­sands of Puerto Ri­cans like those in Bar­rio Mana, Amer­i­can cit­i­zens liv­ing in Third World con­di­tions six months af­ter a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter.

Puerto Ri­can of­fi­cials say the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is ne­glect­ing the ter­ri­tory be­cause it doesn't have a vote in Congress or pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has blamed Puerto Rico for cre­at­ing de­lays in the dis­burse­ment process, but has not been more spe­cific.

Mean­while, tens of thou­sands of Puerto Ri­cans are still wait­ing for per­ma­nent shel­ter, wa­ter or power as the next At­lantic hur­ri­cane sea­son ap­proaches.

“If we were a state, the re­sponse cer­tainly would have been a lot quicker,'' said Omar Mar­rero, di­rec­tor of Puerto Rico's Cen­tral Re­cov­ery and Re­con­struc­tion Of­fice. He said that of the $23 bil­lion, Puerto Rico has so far re­ceived only $1.27 bil­lion for its fed­eral as­sis­tance nu­tri­tion pro­gram and $430 mil­lion to help re­pair pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture.

Last week, 58 U.S. leg­is­la­tors sent a let­ter to U.S.Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steve Mnuchin de­mand­ing the agency ex­pe­dite the loan process and of­fer the full amount.

“At a time when peo­ple on the is­land are hurt­ing, it is un­con­scionable to not pro­vide max­i­mum re­lief to Amer­i­can cit­i­zens at the hour of their great­est need,'' they wrote. “Un­for­tu­nately, the Trea­sury Depart­ment seems more con­cerned with re­pay­ment of the loan than in pro­vid­ing emer­gency liq­uid­ity re­lief to an is­land bat­tered by two hur­ri­canes and 11 years of re­ces­sion.''

Puerto Rico re­mains mired in a long­stand­ing eco­nomic cri­sis, strug­gling to re­struc­ture a por­tion of $73 bil­lion in pub­lic debt ac­cu­mu­lated through years of mis­man­age­ment, cor­rup­tion and the elim­i­na­tion of decades-old fed­eral tax breaks. The re­sponse to Maria has un­leashed fresh al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment of fed­eral aid.

Mnuchin tes­ti­fied to a U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives sub­com­mit­tee that Puerto Rico's govern­ment was de­lay­ing the process by mak­ing un­rea­son­able de­mands, which he de­clined to spec­ify. “I can as­sure you we have a team at Trea­sury that stands ready to lend them money right away,'' he said.“We are not hold­ing this up.''

Maria de­stroyed some 75,000 homes and dam­aged 300,000 more, caus­ing an es­ti­mated $31 bil­lion in dam­age to hous­ing alone, said the is­land's hous­ing sec­re­tary, Fer­nando Gil.

FEMA has granted more than $1 bil­lion in rent pay­ments, home re­pairs and other ex­penses, spokesman Daniel Llargues said. The U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers has in­stalled more than 59,000 tarps for the roughly 60,000 homes ap­proved for the project, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic af­fairs di­rec­tor Jac­que­line Tate.

But bil­lions of dol­lars re­main pend­ing, in­clud­ing $1.5 bil­lion in con­gres­sion­ally ap­pro­pri­ated money that was promised last month in com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment block grants for Puerto Rico's Depart­ment of Hous­ing.

“If we had power in Congress ... I ask my­self if any fed­eral agency would treat us as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens,'' Gil said.“They are not do­ing this to Texas. They are not do­ing this to Florida.''

In Bar­rio Mana, neigh­bors cleared a small piece of land five months ago af­ter meet­ing with fed­eral of­fi­cials who pledged to pro­vide a gen­er­a­tor to pump wa­ter from the neigh­bor­hood's well.

“Af­ter that, we never saw them again,'' said Ene­mias Rivera, the well's ad­min­is­tra­tor.

The U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency said it is await­ing per­mis­sion from FEMA to in­stall the gen­er­a­tor, but FEMA said it has not re­ceived a re­quest from the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Gov. Ri­cardo Ros­sello. Mean­while, Corozal town of­fi­cials did not re­turn calls for com­ment.

Jen­nif­fer Gon­za­lez, Puerto Rico's rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Congress, and a spokes­woman for Ros­sello did not re­turn re­quests for com­ment.

FEMA said in a state­ment that it con­tin­ues to work with Puerto Rico's govern­ment and other agen­cies and groups, and noted that the re­sponse to the hur­ri­cane in Puerto Rico was the largest dis­as­ter air de­liv­ery mis­sion in U.S. his­tory.

“Af­ter two cat­a­strophic hur­ri­canes struck the is­land six months ago, we re­al­ize that there will still be un­met needs, as fed­eral as­sis­tance isn't meant to make peo­ple whole, but help sur­vivors start their re­cov­ery,'' the agency said.

Six months af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria, 97 per­cent of wa­ter cus­tomers do have ser­vice and 91 per­cent of power cus­tomers have elec­tric­ity. But for those ru­ral ar­eas that re­main in the dark, power com­pany of­fi­cials are con­sid­er­ing in­stalling FEMA­funded bat­tery-pow­ered so­lar pan­els to pro­vide more im­me­di­ate re­lief, Elec­tric Power Author­ity in­terim di­rec­tor Justo Gon­za­lez said. At the same time the com­pany is strug­gling with nearly weekly out­ages. The most re­cent one, on Mon­day, af­fected some 50,000 cus­tomers. Two weeks ago, some 970,000 peo­ple were left in the dark.

The Power Author­ity also is fac­ing al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment. On Mon­day, the U.S. House Com­mit­tee on Nat­u­ral Re­sources de­manded doc­u­ments re­lated to any in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the al­le­ga­tions, in­clud­ing that crews ac­cepted bribes to re­store power first to strip clubs and that some re­stored power to their own homes ahead of the is­land's largest pub­lic hos­pi­tal and main in­ter­na­tional air­port. The com­pany has said it has not re­ceived any com­plaints or in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing those al­le­ga­tions, but said it would in­ves­ti­gate if any­one came for­ward with in­for­ma­tion.

Perez and her neigh­bors say they have given up hope they will ever get a gen­er­a­tor for their well.

“They've aban­doned all of us,'' said Jose An­to­nio Rosado, whose wife needs dial­y­sis three times a week and de­pends on an elec­tric­ity inverter that a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion do­nated to the cou­ple as they con­tinue to wait for power and wa­ter con­nec­tions. “The help never, never, never ma­te­ri­al­ized.''

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF BIG THINK

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