BY NICOLE LAFOND
Katia Marie Ramos is experiencing depression for the first time in her life.
It’s not been fueled by the loss of her home, which, last she saw it, stood in the suburbs of San Juan, Puerto Rico, with nothing left but a few upright walls, loose wires and a tangled tarp for a roof.
It wasn’t ignited by the panic she experienced while she rode out Category Four Hurricane Maria in her friend’s home, clutching her four-year-old daughter to her chest. It’s not because she lost her job after the building where she worked as a security guard was destroyed in the storm, or the fact that she had to sell all of her belongings, including her car, in order to purchase a plane ticket to evacuate to the mainland after the storm.
Even when she arrived in Hartford, Conn. to stay with her sister and was swiftly kicked out of the small apartment because her young daughter was too loud for the neighbor’s liking, she didn’t let that get her down. She stayed upbeat when she took a part-time job as a cashier at a local grocery store, a position she said she feels vastly “overqualified” for.
The depression kicked in in recent weeks, when Ramos found out the federal government would soon be cutting off her transitional funding that’s paying for her to stay with 30 other evacuee families at the Red Roof Inn in Hartford, Conn.
“I can tell you I’ve lost 12 pounds, am going through depression and had to send my daughter away to live with her father until I can afford my own apartment because I can’t pay for childcare too,” she said. “It’s difficult to regain a normal life here.”
Ramos is one of 4,000 Puerto Rican families being put up in hotels in 41 states by the federal government after their homes were destroyed or deemed unlivable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) when Hurricane Maria struck on September 20. She and her daughter are also one of hundreds of families who will be further displaced when FEMA cuts off their federal transitional assistance next month.
This halt in aid for displaced Puerto Ricans is just the latest in a string of inadequate, botched and prejudicial federal responses to the devastation on the island that has left evacuees, activists and elected officials claiming the islanders are being treated more like refugees than U.S. citizens.
‘A pattern of disregard’
On top of a disorganized response to the storm from the federal government, activists claim there’s a deeper prejudice at play that stems from a country-wide misunderstanding about the citizenship of Puerto Ricans, as well as the attitude toward the island coming from the top of the Trump administration.
“It’s so disheartening for the federal government to have this rather cold response to the needs of these people, these refugees,” senior adviser for the Center for Popular Democracy Julio Lopez Varona said, clarifying why his organization refers to the Puerto Ricans displaced by the hurricane as refugees. “We use that word because they were displaced from the world they were living in and living in a place with no roots out of necessity. … The federal response has been reflective of the administration’s pattern of disregard and its views of brown and black communities.”
But Joseph Varela says the response from Washington is far from startling. The U.S. has been treating Puerto Ricans like “puppets” for decades—long before his home and four businesses outside of San Juan were destroyed by the storm, he said. Long before he, his wife and two of his children spent 28 days taking baths in the river, hiking two miles to get drinking water, waiting in line for 10 hours to get gasoline and living in a home that was flooded with five and a half feet of standing water.
“The help is a joke, FEMA is a joke,” he said last week, taking a break from his volunteer shift with the New York Disaster Interfaith Services at a market at the Church of the Holy Agony in East Harlem. He eventually adjudicated he should evacuate himself and his family to the mainland about a month after the storm hit because he had the means to do it on his own but has felt guilty for leaving people behind to suffer. That’s why he started volunteering at the market, which has been set up for evacuees who need clothes, food or cash for their metro card.
“I was a well-connected guy. I had contacts, I had power and here I was, suffering like an animal,” he said. “Every person I see coming through here, I tell them to not depend on FEMA or the government. They are not here to help you.”
Varela pointed to the historic colonial relationship between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico as the root of the “second class” attitude toward Puerto Ricans.
“The federal government offered me a business loan and a personal loan to help fix my house and my businesses,” he said. “How dare they offend me, as if I don’t know how insurance works. … They think we are freaking idiots.”
Arbitrary deadlines to cut off aid
Hurricane Maria made a direct hit to Puerto Rico last September precipitating widespread devastation. With wind speeds of up to 150 miles per hour, the hurricane knocked out 80 percent of the island’s power transmission lines and destroyed thousands of homes. While officially 64 people died as a result of the storm, researchers and media reports suggest the actual death toll could be in the thousands when deaths as a result of limited electricity or access to health care and medications are accounted for.
After the hurricane passed, FEMA, as with other natural disasters, opened up applications for federal funding for repairs to homes or hotel vouchers for those whose homes were destroyed, falling in line with the agency’s obligations under the Stafford Act, according to a FEMA spokesperson. After local hotels filled up, FEMA offered to pay for some to evacuate to the mainland and gave Transitional Shelter Assistance to those whose homes were deemed unsafe, FEMA said.
Since the hurricane hit the island FEMA has spent $31 million to help the 4,000 Puerto Ricans resettle after their homes were destroyed or damaged in the storm, but that funding will end on March 20 unless the governor of Puerto Rico asks for an extension, according to federal agency.
“We continue working with the Government of Puerto Rico on all housing options and opportunities for the survivors of Hurricane Maria,” a FEMA spokesperson said last week.
But activists like Lopez-Varona think the federal government should “do the right thing” and extend the deadline regardless of guidance from the Puerto Rican governor.
“Funding should be contingent on the well-being of families, not arbitrary deadlines,” he said.
Access to resources matters
While many evacuees prepare for the March 20 cut-off, the agency already ended funding last month for hundreds of families whose homes were deemed safe by FEMA. “Safe” means there wasn’t extensive damage to the house, it’s sanitary and utilities are working, FEMA said.
But just because a home is considered safe, doesn’t make the property livable, according to Julianne Pannellii, the director of special projects for Catholic Charities Community Services in New York.
“If you only have utilities, but no roads or schools or supermarket or hospital nearby, it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Those things matter to people.”
Since the storm, hundreds of thousands of evacuees have already migrated primarily to New York City, Dallas, Chicago, parts of Florida, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, according to Lopez Varona, the senior adviser at Popular Democracy. Researchers predict a half million will have to evacuate to the mainland by next year, The New York Times’ reported in February.
Some have arrived through assistance from FEMA. Others, like Ramos, have bought plane tickets on their own, risking the uncertainty of temporary housing or “staying in homeless shelters here because the shelter was a better option than being home,” Panelli said.
That sentiment is what brought Emely Negron and her family to the U.S. after the storm. She has been in and out of Hartford, Conn. hotels for the past month and continues to feel unsettled.
“I can’t find a job and a stable home; it has not been easy,” she said, speaking at a “#PowerForPuertoRico” event in Washington, D.C. “We don’t have a lot and we struggle to get food every day for our children. That been said, the community has stood up and supported us. Unfortunately, the federal government is about to kick us out of the hotel and leave us in the cold.”
While advocates and evacuees understand the funding is meant to work as a transitional service, the level of displacement and migration to the mainland has been “unprecedented” following this storm, Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an attorney with the Latino Justice organization claimed. The devastation is unique, she said, nothing like the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Katrina and Harvey. In those cases “you’re talking about a jurisdiction where you can drive forty miles, not having to leave your island to go to another country, practically,” she said.
“The citizenship is an empty one”
For those who remain on the island, retaining funding for repairs has proven to be just as challenging because the legal structure for obtaining a deed is different in Puerto Rico than it is in states on the mainland, according to Bannan and one elected official.
Nearly 62 percent of Puerto Ricans who applied for some type of assistance to repair their homes through FEMA were denied, according to the Latino Justice organization. The rejections are in part a result of the fact that FEMA does not have the systems in place to properly accept documents and paperwork from Puerto Rico because the territory’s title structure for deeds is different than American states, according to Bannan.
“The agency responsible for overseeing (the shelter and relief efforts) doesn’t have a system in place to accurately accept applications from Puerto Ricans,” Bannan said.
Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a vocal critic of President Donald Trump and his administration’s response to the disaster, said there’s been so little clarity on the rationale for aid application rejections from the federal government that she went to Puerto Rico herself last weekend to try to understand the breakdowns in receiving funding for repairs and temporary shelter on the island. Mark-Viverito said families who live in the rural and mountainous parts of the island told her they couldn’t get federal assistance to fix their homes because they operate under a crop shareholding agreement with Puerto Rico’s central government, meaning the local government owns the deed to their land, but allows them to cultivate and live on the property. After an agreed upon number of years, the deed is transferred to the resident, she said.
On top of that, more than half of the homes in Puerto Rico are considered “informal,” or built illegally on private or government-owned land. Many of these homes have been passed down through several generations without residents properly obtaining a deed or insurance for the property, according to statements from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That poses a challenge when residents attempt to apply for federal assistance to rebuild or repair their homes because of FEMA policy.
“Homeowners will have to provide proof of ownership to be considered for repairs or replacements for uninsured or underinsured damages due to Hurricane Irma or Maria,” FEMA said. “If no proof is provided the applicant may be eligible for a personal property grant. Survivors are encouraged to check with their municipalities and local officials to obtain the documentation needed to apply for disaster assistance like deed or title of property.”
The homeownership differences and infrastructure challenges that President Donald Trump referenced in his initial response to the disaster are all part of a broader prejudice that the federal government has cast on Puerto Rican islanders for decades, Bannan said. The hurricane just helped put it on display.
“It’s clear the citizenship is meaningless,” she said. “The citizenship is an empty one.”
While Varela, the Puerto Rican evacuee and businesses owner, Bannan and other activists agree that the federal response has been reflective of a long-standing bias toward Puerto Ricans, Varela believes this challenge will eventually produce a positive ending for many in back on the island.
“Thanks to all of this, I am a better person. We are better people now,” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones. … I know the system now, it’s up to me to stay here, get strong and go back and help.”