Puerto Rico's ground zero for Hurricane Maria still needs help

Residents of Yabucoa say they are still waiting for federal aid

YABUCOA, Puerto Rico – The 35,000 residents of Yabucoa, a small municipality on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, are still dealing with the damage that Hurricane Maria left behind in 2017. Their rebuilding efforts have languished. 

For Jasmine Morales, the devastating 155 mph winds and rain were catastrophic and her family's struggles are far from over. Her home's roof still hasn't been repaired. And nearly 18 months after the storm, she still doesn't feel safe. 

"I am still scared," Morales said in Spanish. 

She said the frightening Category 4 hurricane made landfall at 6:15 a.m., but the destruction it left behind was just the beginning of the tragedy. Losing it all was difficult, but even more painful, she said, was that the help was slow to arrive to the town that bore the strongest brunt of the storm. 

Local authorities are still waiting for more aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Several federal agencies, including FEMA and the Disaster Relief Fund allocated $40.7 billion through December 2018 to help Puerto Rico, and has already spent $11.2 billion, according to federal authorities

The leaders have used most of the aid to restore power through a privatization plan that some experts believe is likely to fail. Ahmed Molina, Yabucoa's emergency management director, recently said the slow disbursement of the aid is hurting the residents of Yabucoa. 

"We need that money for rebuilding," Molina said. 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a visit to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters on August 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo by Michael Reynolds/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a visit to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters on August 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo by Michael Reynolds/Getty Images

FEMA responded to two other hurricanes that year. Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage mostly in Houston. Irma caused $64.7 billion in damage and destroyed homes in Puerto Rico's town of Loiza and the islands of Culebra and Vieques. 

The residents of Yabucoa say they need the federal government to act quickly. Congress approved $1.27 billion for the food stamp program in Puerto Rico, but that expired in March and a little over 40 percent of Puerto Ricans qualify for the aid.

Most recently, Puerto Rican leaders blamed the delay on neglect from Congress and the White House, and President Donald Trump in turn accused the Puerto Rican leaders of malfeasance. 

Amid the wrangling conflict, Morales has given up on the shuttered wreck that is left of her childhood home, and she has started to build a new home on her own. Morales and Molina said they are still hoping the federal aid will come. They know they are not prepared for this year's hurricane season.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is managing $20 billion in disaster relief grants approved for Puerto Rico. The Government Accountability Office reported in March that HUD "lacks adequate guidance for staff reviewing the quality of grantees’ financial processes and procedures and assessments of capacity and unmet needs, and has not completed monitoring or workforce plans."

A group of volunteers from All Hands and Hearts, a nonprofit organization that focuses on disaster relief, has been committed to helping them build homes since 2017. Some of the volunteers have moved there full time and although they have a contract that is up in October they plan to stay there until their projects are complete. 

 TAKE ACTION:  For more information about how to get involved with All Hands and Hearts' projects in Puerto Rico, fill out and submit a volunteer application online


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