When Hurricane Maria tore through Cuba Libre, a small hamlet in central Puerto Rico, it ripped Iris Ortiz’s roof clean off. Two years later, as she stood on a neighbor’s elevated porch, she peered into the small cement home where she grew up but is now abandoned. Her dishes were still stacked neatly in the kitchen, and a faded picture of the Virgin Mary was hanging in the living room.
“I’ll fix the roof and move back in,” she said without much enthusiasm. “Someday.”
Large swaths of this U.S. territory have rebounded since the Category 4 storm cut through the island on Sept. 20, 2017, killing almost 3,000 people and causing more than $102 billion in damage.
As tourists drink and dance on the streets of Old San Juan and the tony areas of Condado, it’s easy to forget what the island went through 24 months ago.
But just beyond Puerto Rico’s picture-perfect sunsets and beaches, the recovery is struggling. The government estimates that anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 people are still living under temporary blue tarps or, like Ortiz, have no roofs at all. There are still bridges and roads that are washed out. And almost ten thousand people are waiting for insurance payments.
“The recovery has been painfully slow,” said Deepak Lamba-Nieves, the research director at the Center for a New Economy, a Puerto Rico-based think tank.
Puerto Rico’s decade-long recession, years of austerity programs, federal programs unprepared to deal with the idiosyncratic island, corruption fears and excessive oversight are all creating obstacles, he said.
“You add it all up and you have a recipe for slowness that ends up especially hampering those folks who cannot draw from their savings to fix up their house,” he said.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria pounded Puerto Rico, the federal government allocated more than $43 billion dollars for the recovery. Of that money, only $21 billion has been “obligated” or earmarked for specific tasks, and only $14 billion has been disbursed — or less than 33 percent.
By comparison, of the $10.8 billion allocated to Florida after Irma and Maria, $8.5 billion has been obligated and $5.6 billion has been disbursed — more than half.
Local leaders say the slow flow of funds is limiting their ability to bounce back or even prepare for the next storm.
Puerto Rico’s Department of Transportation and Public Works says it hasn’t been able to make a single permanent repair since Maria because the Federal Emergency Management Agency hasn’t approved the funds. As a result, it hasn’t been able to replace 18,000 road signs, repair damaged bridges or fix 747 areas affected by landslides
“We haven’t been able to touch those areas beyond putting some fencing around them and securing the area,” the agency’s director of public works, Emilio Garay, told El Nuevo Dia newspaper, “because FEMA hasn’t approved the projects.”
There are multiple reasons that the federal government is moving so slow in Puerto Rico, but one overriding one: corruption fears.
Not a week seems to go by on the island without reports of government waste or shady dealings. Former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was driven out of office in August after his secretaries of health and education were arrested on fraud charges and amid the leak of a profane and vulgar chat group he was participating in.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly described the island as a den of thieves.
“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth,” he wrote on Twitter Aug. 28, as Hurricane Dorian barreled toward, but ultimately missed, the island. “Their political system is broken and their politicians are either incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time [for Maria], more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it sent it to Crooked Pols. No good!...”
In some ways, Trump has a point. From 2008 to 2017 the U.S. Attorney’s office in Puerto Rico registered 375 federal corruption convictions — more than any other single office except for Maryland. But most states have multiple districts, and by that measure Puerto Rico is far behind states like Florida, California, New York, Georgia and Virginia when it comes to corruption convictions.
Even so, the U.S. government has put unprecedented restrictions on aid to Puerto Rico. Both FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — two of the biggest sources of reconstruction funding — have at times put extra layers of scrutiny in place for the island that don’t apply to other states. In addition, the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board, a group of federally appointed officials, must review all contracts worth more than $10 million.
Despite those safeguards, the largest cases of Maria-related corruption so far have nothing to do with local officials, but with Washington itself.
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice indicted and arrested FEMA Deputy Regional Administrator Ahsha Nateef Tribble, her former chief of staff, Jovanda Patterson, and the former president of Cobra Acquisitions, Donald Keith Ellison, on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery of public officials.
According to the government, Ellison plied the FEMA administrator with gifts and perks in exchange for an inside track on contracts. Cobra eventually won two deals worth $1.8 billion to help Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, PREPA, restore the grid. Those contracts were paid through PREPA using FEMA funds.
“What surprises me is that the whole corruption angle has been overplayed in Washington, D.C.,” Lamba-Nieves said. “It’s unfair for the U.S. government to point to us and say ‘We can’t trust you,’ when their own investigators and inspector general have found misdealings tied to federal officials and U.S. companies.”
Life in Blue
Many of the issues that have plagued Maria recovery efforts defy blanket explanations.
The neighborhood of Cuba Libre lies about 22 miles southwest of San Juan in the municipality of Corozal. And it’s one of numerous areas where the memories of Maria are still fresh.
About half of the dozen or so houses in the area are still covered with blue tarps — intended to be a temporary solution immediately after the storm. And debris from Maria still litters the streets, a testament to a municipality that says it’s too broke to haul away all the garbage.
But the reasons people are still living under plastic tarps are complicated. Matilde Jimenez, 55, had her damaged roof replaced under a local program called “Tu Hogar Renace” — Your House is Reborn. But the tin roof was poorly installed and her bedroom flooded during the next rain. So a few weeks ago her neighbors helped put her blue tarp back up.
Next door, Aida Rosado, 74, had a blue tarp over her wooden shack. She wasn’t eligible for additional repair funding because she — like many Puerto Ricans — doesn’t have a deed to her home, despite having lived there most of her life.
Other neighbors put up blue tarps but then abandoned the community, joining the estimated 129,000 Puerto Ricans who have left the island since the storm.
Ortiz was initially pleased when she received about $5,000 from FEMA to put a new roof on her house. But then she realized the money wouldn’t begin to cover the costs of new columns and a central beam needed before the roof could go on. And even once it’s up she still needs to replace the wiring in the home.
“I don’t know where to start,” said Ortiz, 71, who has spent most of her time since Maria dealing with medical emergencies. She’s not even sure how much money she might have left to make the repairs.
Maritza Rodríguez, another Cuba Libre resident, had one of the few houses that wasn’t damaged by the storm, but she hasn’t escaped the effects of Maria.
Scattered around her are the carcasses of abandoned homes and stacks of debris. The local government has repeatedly said they would tear the homes down and haul away the trash, but it never happens. Because Cuba Libre is so far removed from the hubbub of San Juan — and even downtown Corozal — it’s easy for the government to turn a blind eye, she said.
“We’re just a little piece of an entire population that has been forgotten,” she said.