LOIZA, Puerto Rico –
Jetsabel Osorio Chevere looked up with a sad smile as she leaned against her battered home.
Nearly five years have passed since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and no one has offered their family a plastic tarp or zinc panels to replace the roof that the Category 4 storm tore from the two-story house in a poor corner of the north coast. town of Lawza.
“Nobody comes here to help,” said the 19-year-old.
It’s a familiar lament in a US territory of 3.2 million people where thousands of homes, roads and recreation areas have yet to be repaired or rebuilt since Maria struck in September 2017. The government has only completed 21% of the more than 5,500 official post-hurricane works. projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that no projects have started. Only five municipalities report that half of the projects planned for their area have been completed, according to an Associated Press study of government data.
And with Tropical Storm Fiona set to hit Puerto Rico on Sunday, possibly in hurricane form, more than 3,600 homes still have a tattered blue tarp serving as a makeshift roof.
“This is unacceptable,” said Cristina Miranda, executive director of the local nonprofit League of Cities. “Five years later, uncertainty still reigns.”
The Governor of Puerto Rico and Deanne Criswell, head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency who recently visited the island, stressed that post-hurricane work is underway, but many wonder how long it will take and fear that another devastating storm will hit in the meantime.
Criswell said officials focused on recovery and emergency repairs for the first three years after Maria. Reconstruction has now begun, she noted, but will take time as authorities want to ensure the structures being built are robust enough to withstand the more severe hurricanes projected due to climate change.
“We recognize that the recovery may not seem to be going fast enough five years later,” she said. “Hurricane Maria was a catastrophic event that caused really complex damage.”
The hurricane damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths after leveling the island’s power grid. Crews only recently began rebuilding the network with more than $9 billion in federal funds. Island-wide blackouts and daily blackouts persist, damaging appliances and forcing those with chronic health conditions to find temporary solutions to keep their medications cool.
The slowness has frustrated many on an island emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.
Some Puerto Ricans have chosen to rebuild instead of waiting for government help that they believe will never come.
Osorio, the 19-year-old from Loiza, said her family bought a tarp and zinc panels out of their own pocket and installed a new roof on the second floor. But it leaks, so now she lives with her father and grandfather on the first floor.
Meanwhile, in the central region of the island, community leaders who accused the government of ignoring rural areas have formed a nonprofit, vowing never to experience what they experienced after Maria. They built their own well, opened a community center in an abandoned school, and used their own equipment to repair a key road. They also opened a medical clinic in April and certified nearly 150 people in emergency response courses.
“That’s what we’re looking for, not depending on anyone,” said Francisco Valentin of the Primary Health Services and Socioeconomic Development Corporation. “We had to organize ourselves because there is no other option.”
City officials are also tired of waiting for help.
In the southern coastal town of Penuelas, Mayor Gregory Gonsalez said he had requested permission to hire special brigades to repair roads, ditches and other infrastructure, with work starting in mid-September.
It is one of five municipalities that has not seen a single post-hurricane project completed, with a pier, medical center, government office and road still awaiting reconstruction. Gonsalez said few companies are bidding because they’re short on employees or quoting a price above what federal authorities allow because inflation drives up the cost of materials.
It’s a frustration shared by Josian Santiago, mayor of the central mountain town of Comerio. He said there was an urgent need for crews to repair the main road that connects his town to the capital of San Juan, as landslides close it with increasing frequency. Tropical Storm Earl was blamed for causing eight landslides on September 6, just hours before it became a hurricane.
“It’s a terrible risk,” Santiago said, adding that engineers had recently told him the repair could take another two years. “Two years?! How much longer do we have to wait?!”
Reminders of the time that has passed since Hurricane Maria hit are scattered across Puerto Rico.
Faded red plastic pom poms tied around wooden utility poles that still lean up to 60 degrees flapped in the wind when Tropical Storm Earl dumped heavy rain on the island in early September.
Norma Lopez, a 56-year-old housewife, has a pole leaning a few feet from her balcony in Loiza, and it infuriates her every time she sees it.
“It’s still there. About to fall,” said Lopez, who lost her roof to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again to Maria. “I’m here to try to survive.”
Sixty-five-year-old Virmisa Rivera, who lives nearby, said her roof leaked every time it rained and the laminate walls near her bedroom were constantly soaked.
She said FEMA gave her $1,600 to rent a house while she fixed her roof, but no crew came. Her recently deceased boyfriend tried to install zinc panels, but they didn’t protect against heavy rain.
“My house is falling apart,” she said, adding that the government had said it would move her to a new house in another neighborhood because it cannot fix his as it lies in a flood zone.
But Rivera fears she will die if she moves: she takes 19 pills a day and uses an oxygen bottle daily. Her family lives next door, which makes her feel secure since she now lives alone.
Family is also the reason 19-year-old Osorio would like to see a roof for the second floor. This is where her mother raised her and her sister before she died. Osorio was 12, so his younger sister was sent to live with an aunt.
Plywood panels now cover the second-story windows that her mother built by hand with cinder blocks. It was there that she taught Osorio how to make the candles and cloth baby wipes they used to sell, sitting side by side while Osorio talked about his school day.
“It’s at my mother’s,” Osorio said pointing to the second floor, “and that’s where I intend to live.”