Puerto Rico Faces Continued Obstacles in Emergency Relief Process After Hurricane Fiona – Texas A&M University Today | NutSocia

a photo of a small house with no roof and several collapsed walls.  Inside there is a couch, table and chairs and other miscellaneous furniture.  in the background is the top of a palm tree and a blue-grey sky with lots of clouds.

A home in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico that was damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and subsequently abandoned. The island was recently hit by another major storm when Hurricane Fiona made landfall in September.

Angel Valentine/Getty Images

The Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected 60.5% of 1.1 million Puerto Ricans’ housing benefit applications after Hurricane Maria devastated the area in 2017.

As I explained in an article published in housing policy debate, an academic journal, FEMA used 41 different reasons when rejecting a total of 77,000 applicants. The main reason: the homeowners lacked the legal title for their properties. Without their names on the deeds, they had no way to prove they were the true owners of the homes damaged or destroyed by the storm.

Other reasons FEMA gave were that it considered the damage insufficient or that two households with the same address had submitted it — which is common with homes built without building permits, architects, or engineers.

Five years after Hurricane Maria, I believe these homeowners’ inability to receive federal assistance has certainly compounded the impact of Fiona, a massive storm that struck Puerto Rico on September 18, 2022. When community leaders assessed the damage, they found hundreds of houses still covered with old blue tarps because they never got a new roof after Maria.

As a city planner who has studied disaster recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, I see these plans as evidence that FEMA rejected applications that it should have accepted. I’m monitoring the agency to see if that happens again this time.

Biggest need but least likely to get help

FEMA provides post-disaster financial and housing assistance to qualified households who are uninsured or whose insurance does not cover the full cost of reconstruction. Unfortunately, in Puerto Rico and other places that are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and other disasters, the most vulnerable residents lack the documentation they need to receive this assistance.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas in 2017 and caused approximately $125 billion in damage, FEMA rejected 30% of Texans’ housing benefit applications because those households did not lack deeds with their names printed on them.

Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, FEMA turned down 20,000 applicants who had long lived in homes they inherited from relatives without ever clearing their home ownership papers.

Some workarounds

For clarity, FEMA may legally accept other forms of documentation as proof of ownership when reviewing grant applications.

If there is no definitive deed, applicants can provide receipts for home repairs or renovations, or letters from government agencies confirming residency.

Following advocacy efforts in Puerto Rico, in 2021 FEMA released new guidance with simplified rules for proving homeownership — such as allowing homeowners to file affidavits.

But at this time, it’s not clear that FEMA is informing applicants in the United States of alternative ways they can prove ownership. Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would make the agency work harder to help all disaster survivors who are eligible for their assistance.

a photo of two people carrying trash cans out of a house flooded with mud

After Hurricane Fiona, a family in Cayey, Puerto Rico, begins cleaning up their flooded home. When the storm hit, the two-story building was almost completely submerged by the ensuing floodwaters.

Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

After Fiona

Puerto Ricans seem to be quicker to apply for FEMA aid after Fiona than after Maria.

According to Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that supports its Puerto Rican counterparts by trawling early data to determine if federal funds are reaching the most vulnerable households, the agency received nearly $1 million in the first two weeks it accepted applications Applications for housing assistance there. FEMA is already authorized to spend $79.4 million on aid.

As of October 18, 2022, according to Texas Appleseed, FEMA had determined that 88% of these applicants were eligible for their assistance. But almost all of the approved applicants had received just $700 — the standard amount paid out as FEMA’s Critical Needs Assistance, a one-time payment intended to cover minor expenses created by temporary pressures.

If unsuccessful after filing an appeal with FEMA, disaster survivors who receive this one-time assistance will not receive further assistance.

Puerto Rican FEMA applicants, eager to get that $700 fast, are leaving out important information — like the level of damage to their homes — that could lead to much more assistance, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, a advocacy.

If they received a home inspection, they would have to wait longer for help, but could potentially receive up to $37,900 in housing benefits.

It is possible that many applicants will later receive additional grants that would cover at least part of the cost of rebuilding their home. At this point, it’s too early to know if FEMA will take a more comprehensive approach when considering which Puerto Rican homeowners should be eligible for these funds.

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