Puerto Rico awaits another hurricane while rebuilding stalls

AP , Sunday 18 Sep 2022

Fiona strengthened into a hurricane Sunday as it bore down on Puerto Rico, where people braced for severe wind and torrential rains., and nearly five years have gone by since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, and no one has offered Jetsabel Osorio Chevere's family a plastic tarp or zinc panels to replace the roof that the Category 4 storm ripped off the two-story home in an impoverished corner in the north coast town of Loiza.

A man walks past destroyed homes in Catano, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, 2017. AFP


Jetsabel Osorio Chevere looked up with a sad smile as she leaned against her battered home.

"No one comes here to help," the 19-year-old said.

Now, forecasters have said "historic" levels of rain were expected to produce landslides and heavy flooding, with up to 25 inches (64 centimeters) forecast in isolated areas.

"It's time to take action and be concerned," said Nino Correa, Puerto Rico's emergency management commissioner.

Fiona was centered 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Sunday morning. It had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph) and was moving west-northwest at 8 mph (13 kph).

Anxiety ran high across the island with Fiona due just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that hit on Sept. 20, 2017, destroying the island's power grid and causing nearly 3,000 deaths.

More than 3,000 homes still have only a blue tarp as a roof, and infrastructure remains weak.

"I think all of us Puerto Ricans who lived through Maria have that post-traumatic stress of, "What is going to happen, how long is it going to last and what needs might we face?" said Danny Hernandez, who works in the capital of San Juan but planned to weather the storm with his parents and family in the western town of Mayaguez.

He said the atmosphere was gloomy at the supermarket as he and others stocked up before the storm hit.

"After Maria, we all experienced scarcity to some extent," he said.

The storm was forecast to pummel cities and towns along Puerto Rico's southern coast that have not yet fully recovered from a string of strong earthquakes that hit the region starting in late 2019.

Officials reported several road closures across the island as trees and small landslides blocked access.

More than 100 people had sought shelter across the island by Saturday night, the majority of them in the southern coastal city of Guayanilla.

Many Puerto Ricans also were concerned about blackouts. Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, warned of "widespread service interruptions." As of Sunday morning more than 320,000 customers were without power.

Puerto Rico's power grid was razed by Hurricane Maria and remains frail, with reconstruction starting only recently. Outages are a daily occurrence.

In the southwest town of El Combate, which is in the storm's path, hotel co-owner Tomas Rivera said he was prepared but worried about the "enormous" amount of rain he expected. He noted that a nearby wildlife refuge was eerily quiet.

"There are thousands of birds here, and they are nowhere to be seen," he said. "Even the birds have realized what is coming, and they're preparing."

Rivera said his employees brought bedridden family members to the hotel, where he has stocked up on diesel, gasoline, food, water and ice, given how slowly the government responded after Hurricane Maria.

"What we've done is prepared ourselves to depend as little as possible on the central government," he said.

It's a sentiment shared by 70-year-old Ana Cordova, who arrived Saturday at a shelter in the north coastal town of Loiza after buying loads of food and water.

``I don't trust them,'' she said, referring to the government. "I lost trust after what happened after Hurricane Maria."

Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro Pierluisi, said he was ready to declare a state of emergency if needed and activated the National Guard as the Atlantic hurricane season's sixth named storm approached.

"What worries me most is the rain," said forecaster Ernesto Morales with the National Weather Service in San Juan.

Fiona was predicted to drop 12 to 16 inches (30 to 41 centimeters) of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, with as much as 25 inches (64 centimeters) in isolated spots.

The National Weather Service warned late Saturday that the Blanco River in the southeast coastal town of Naguabo had already surpassed its banks and urged people living nearby to move immediately.

Pierluisi announced Sunday that public schools and government agencies would remain closed on Monday.

Fiona was forecast to swipe the Dominican Republic on Monday and then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands with the threat of heavy rain. It could threaten the far southern end of the Bahamas on Tuesday.

A hurricane warning was posted for the Dominican Republic's eastern coast from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Frances Viejo.

Fiona previously battered the eastern Caribbean, killing one man in the French territory of Guadeloupe when floods washed his home away, officials said. The storm also damaged roads, uprooted trees and destroyed at least one bridge.

St. Kitts and Nevis also reported flooding and downed trees, but announced its international airport would reopen on Sunday afternoon. Dozens of customers were still without power or water, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.

In the eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Madeline was forecast to cause heavy rains and flooding across parts of southwestern Mexico. The storm was centered about 155 miles (245 kilometers) south-southwest of Cabo Corrientes Sunday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph).

While Fiona approaches, the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people where thousands of homes, roads and recreational areas have yet to be fixed or rebuilt since Maria struck in September 2017. The government has completed only 21% of more than 5,500 official post-hurricane projects, and seven of the island's 78 municipalities report that not a single project has begun. Only five municipalities report that half of the projects slated for their region have been completed, according to an Associated Press review of government data.

And with Tropical Storm Fiona forecast to hit Puerto Rico on Sunday, possibly as a hurricane, more than 3,600 homes still have a tattered blue tarp serving as a makeshift roof.

"That is unacceptable," said Cristina Miranda, executive director of local nonprofit League of Cities. "Five years later, uncertainty still prevails."

Puerto Rico's governor and Deanne Criswell, head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency who recently visited the island, stressed that post-hurricane work is underway, but many wonder how much longer it will take and worry another devastating storm will hit in the meantime.

Criswell said officials focused on recovery and emergency repairs for the first three years after Maria. Reconstruction has now started, she noted, but will take time because authorities want to ensure the structures being built are robust enough to withstand stronger hurricanes projected as a result of climate change.

"We recognize the concern that recovery may seem like it's not moving fast enough five years later," she said. "Hurricane Maria was a catastrophic event that caused damages that are really complex."

The hurricane damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths after razing the island's power grid. Crews only recently started to rebuild the grid with more than $9 billion of federal funds. Island-wide blackouts and daily power outages persist, damaging appliances and forcing those with chronic health conditions to find temporary solutions to keep their medications cold.

The slow pace has frustrated many on an island emerging from the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Some Puerto Ricans have opted to rebuild themselves instead of waiting for government help they feel will never come.

Osorio, the 19-year-old from Loiza, said her family bought a tarp and zinc panels out of their own pockets and set up a new roof over their second floor. But it leaks, so now she lives with her father and grandfather on the first floor.

Meanwhile, in the island's central region, community leaders who accused the government of ignoring rural areas formed a nonprofit, vowing to never go through what they experienced after Maria. They've built their own well, opened a community center in an abandoned school and used their own equipment to repair a key road. They also opened a medical clinic in April and certified nearly 150 people in emergency response courses.

"That's what we're seeking, to not depend on anyone," said Francisco Valentin with the Primary Health Services and Socioeconomic Development Corporation. "We've had to organize ourselves because there's no other option."

Municipal officials also have grown tired of waiting for help.

In the southern coastal town of Penuelas, Mayor Gregory Gonsalez said he sought permission to hire special brigades to repair roads, ditches and other infrastructure, with work starting in mid-September.

It is one of five municipalities that has not seen a single post-hurricane project completed, with a pier, medical center, government office and a road still awaiting reconstruction. Gonsalez said that few companies make bids because they lack employees, or they quote a price higher than that authorized by federal officials as inflation drives up the cost of materials.

It's a frustration shared by Josian Santiago, mayor of the central mountain town of Comerio. He said it's urgent that crews repair the main road that connects his town to the capital of San Juan because landslides are closing it down with increasing frequency. Tropical Storm Earl was blamed for causing eight landslides on Sept. 6, just hours before it became a hurricane.

"It's a terrible risk," Santiago said, adding that engineers recently told him it could take another two years to repair. "Two years?! How much longer do we have to wait?!"

Reminders of how much time has passed since Hurricane Maria hit are scattered across Puerto Rico.

Faded red plastic tassels tied around wooden electrical posts that still lean as much as 60 degrees flapped in the wind as Tropical Storm Earl dumped heavy rain across the island in early September.

Norma Lopez, a 56-year-old homemaker, has a post leaning just feet away from her balcony in Loiza, and it exasperates her every time she sees it.

"It's still there. About to fall," said Lopez, who lost her roof to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again to Maria. "I'm here trying to survive."

Sixty-five-year-old Virmisa Rivera, who lives nearby, said her roof leaks every time it rains, and the laminated walls near her bedroom are permanently soaked.

She said FEMA gave her $1,600 to rent a house while it repaired her roof, but no crews came by. Her boyfriend, who recently died, attempted to install zinc panels, but they don't protect from heavy rain.

"My house is falling apart," she said, adding that the government said it would move her to a new home in another neighborhood since it can't repair hers because it's in a flood zone.

But Rivera worries she will die if she moves: She takes 19 pills a day and uses an oxygen tank daily. Her family lives next door, which gives her security since she now lives alone.

Family also is the reason Osorio, the 19-year-old, would like to see a roof for the second floor. It's where her mother raised her and her sister before dying. Osorio was 12, so her younger sister was sent to live with an aunt.

Plywood panels now cover the windows of the second floor that her mother built by hand with cinderblocks. It's where she taught Osorio how to make candles and cloth wipes for babies that they used to sell, sitting side-by-side while Osorio talked about her school day.

"This is my mother's," Osorio said as she motioned to the second floor, "and that's where I plan to live."

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