Puerto Ricans mark 1 year since Hurricane Maria

Anniversary brings back frightening memories amid ongoing recovery

By Christian De La Rosa - Reporter, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer, Michael Putney - Senior Political Reporter

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Yasmin Morales was among the Puerto Ricans on the island who were marking the anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Thursday. Her coastal home, which now has solar panels, is still under construction. 

Morales said it was an emotional day for her since she and many of her neighbors lost everything when the storm made landfall at 6:15 a.m. She and other residents from Yabucoa, a coastal municipality, had to rebuild their homes. 

"I thought I was going to die, I was going to die with my family," Morales said. 

 After a commissioned study, the government of the U.S. island attributed an estimated 2,975 deaths to the Category 4 storm, which also caused an estimated $100 billion in damage, including destroying 75 percent of the island's transmission lines. The hit happened amid a deep recession. 

Yabucoa’s emergency management operations director Ahmed Molina said 300 people died in Yabucoa. Not only has the recovery been slow, the process has also split families. Like thousands of other Puerto Ricans, Molina's wife and son moved to South Florida's city of Homestead. 

Ben Carson, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was in San Juan to announce President Donald Trump's administration released $1.5 billion to Puerto Rico. The aid was part of the $20 billion disaster recovery grant agreement, the largest pledge in the agency’s history.

"The path forward is challenging and will be measured not in months, but really in years," Carson said.

Trump questioned the fatalities that George Washington University researchers estimated happened between September 2017 and February 2018, saying Democrats were using the new figure to hurt his reputation. 

"I evaluated everything they did, and it is my view that it was a very well-done estimate of the death toll numbers," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said on Thursday during an interview with CNN

During the ceremony with Carson in San Juan, Rossello said the U.S. island was still recovering from hurricanes Irma and Maria and added that Puerto Ricans were grateful for the Trump's administration "committed attention to the recovery of the island."

Trump released a statement: "We stand with Puerto Rico, and we are helping them to rebuild stronger and better than ever before."

Amid midterm elections in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott disagreed on the effectiveness of the federal response. A Florida International University survey estimates 75 percent of Puerto Ricans living in Florida have a favorable view of Scott, who was in San Juan on Thursday, and 62 percent have a favorable view of Nelson, who has been critical of Federal Emergency Management Agency's response.  

"This should not happen in America to our fellow U.S. citizens," Nelson said during a news conference. 

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s secretary general, was also in Puerto Rico. He tweeted he was there to "stand in solidarity with the people who have suffered the brunt of Trump's lies, insults and negligence in the year since Hurricane Maria."

There is plenty of frustration about the pace of the recovery on the island, as many households still don't have a roof or reliable access to water and electricity. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed temporary blue roofs on nearly 60,000 homes, and there are still tens of thousands of insurance claims pending. 

Engineer Jose Ortiz, the new director of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, said on Thursday about 20 percent of the repairs that were made to the power grid needed to be redone because they were rushed and temporary. 

Marking the anniversary was most difficult for the Puerto Ricans who are still struggling to recover emotionally. Edna Velazquez lives in Humacao, a coastal municipality north of Yabucoa, where the storm made landfall. 

"Sometimes when I'm passing by and I look at the ocean, I panic. The ocean is so close," Velazquez said in Spanish during an interview with The Miami Herald for the "Puerto Rico: The Forgotten Island" documentary. "I often think to myself, 'What if it overflows?' I am afraid of that ... What we went through was horrible. We lost a lot."

PHOTOGRAPHS 

ON THE WEB  The Miami Herald's short documentary

Copyright 2018 by WPLG Local10.com - All rights reserved.