Puerto Rico: Anxiously waiting for FEMA

Amaris Torres is coordinator of the Hurricane Maria Emergency Legal Aid Fund which, with help from an Oxfam grant, is working to ensure Puerto Ricans can get access to assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

But with help from Oxfam and The Access to Justice Fund Foundation, families can now get the legal help they need in applying for assistance and following up on claims.

Amaris Torres knows as well as anyone in hard-hit Puerto Rico how much islanders desperately need assistance from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency that holds the purse strings to funds that can help them rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The September 20th storm upended the lives of countless people, robbing them of their homes, their jobs, their health. In the months since the hurricane knocked out power across the island, Torres, a lawyer and mother, has spent many of her weekends delivering emergency goods—food, water, hygiene products—to people in need in far-flung communities.

What she has seen has brought tears to her eyes—and an indignation that fuels her resolve as the coordinator of an Emergency Legal Aid Fund, which received a grant from Oxfam, to ensure families can get the help they need in applying for and receiving FEMA benefits. For many people, the hurdles have been enormous.

“I hear the stories,” said Torres. “Everyone is waiting for FEMA.”

Oxfam’s grant to The Access to Justice Fund Foundation jump started the Hurricane Maria Emergency Legal Aid Fund which is currently covering stipends and transportation costs for a host of lawyers to fan out across the island and, with support from volunteers, help as many people as possible file FEMA claims and appeals before the  deadline arrives.

“It’s urgent,” said Torres. “The original deadline was Nov. 20. Now it’s moved to March.”

But given the layers of complexity, that’s still not much time for people, especially if early missteps are any indication of what might happen in the coming months. Ada E. Hernandez’s experience is a case in point.

When it blew the roof off her house in Jagüeyes, the hurricane took much of what Hernandez owned. She managed to save some clothes, and to cover a bathroom and one other small room with some zinc planks, hoping to protect her refrigerator and a few other appliances. Four days after the storm Hernandez went with her sister to fill out the FEMA forms. Later, she drove the long distance back to check on the progress of her application only to find that her birth date and street information recorded in the system were wrong. She got the details fixed, she said, and FEMA promised it would send an inspector to her home by Nov. 30.

Ada Hernandez has been living with her boyfriend since the storm severely damaged her house. She planned to help her mother, disabled by a stroke, by bringing her a water filter. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Access to Information and other challenges

“FEMA came to Puerto Rico unprepared,” said Torres, citing a litany of problems. For example, early on hurricane victims were told to apply for FEMA assistance by phone or through the internet, she said. But with the island’s power grid in shreds and limited connectivity after the storm, call-in or on-line applications were impossible for people to make.

“And then, the applications and instructions were translated from English to an inaccurate and confusing Spanish translation—a language barrier that presented a problem,” said Torres. “Another problem was when FEMA inspectors went to the houses, they would speak in English.”  Torres said she has heard from many community members that they didn’t understand a word of what the inspectors were saying.

FEMA is now addressing some of these shortcomings, said Torres, noting that the agency lately has been hiring Spanish-speaking inspectors, Still, islanders question the sufficiency of the training these new inspectors receive.

But the language barrier isn’t the only worry Puerto Ricans have had about the inspections. They are also concerned about what gets included in a claim, and what gets denied. To many, the decisions seem arbitrary, said Torres, pointing out that the inspectors are not engineers and can’t necessarily determine if a house needs a whole new roof or just part of one.

Trying to track down FEMA protocols and guidelines for these decisions is a challenge in itself, she added.

“They should be public,” said Torres. “Everything has been a mystery. You try to get information about FEMA in the Central Government´s Emergency Operation Center at the Convention Center in San Juan and it is inaccessible.”

For some islanders, FEMA might hold no promise of help at all: Torres said to be eligible for the federal benefits people need to prove, with some kind of documentation, that they are tenants or owners of a property. Many of Puerto Rico’s poorest people can do neither because they are what is known locally as “land rescuers.” Many possess their homes informally or have unresolved inheritance issues.  They live in homes on land legally owned by others.

“Those people lost everything FEMA denies their right to benefits that can help them rebuild their homes,” said Torres. “There are many communities like that in Puerto Rico.”

Legal aid is essentialand so are hugs

Scrolling through her phone, Torres paused at one photo after another of damaged houses and worried people—many of them elderly—she has met on her weekend aid missions. Among them was an 80-year-old woman, legally blind, whose house had cracked when the hurricane blew a tree on top of it.

“She threw herself into my arms and started crying,” said Torres. “She was worried because she has a mortgage on the house and she doesn’t have a phone and hasn’t been able to communicate with the bank.”

In cases like this, legal aid is essential to help prevent foreclosures, said Torres.

“That’s why the Oxfam grant was so important: It helped us start the Emergency Legal Aid Fund,” she said. “It helped us start the process for organizations to provide emergency legal services.”

Through the grant, legal aid teams are now providing assistance not only to people seeking help with FEMA applications, appeals, and follow-ups, but to people who may have lost essential legal documents in the storm, such as titles to their properties, which they now need for insurance claims. The goal of the four-month initiative is to reach 19,400 families.

“I believe lawyers have privileged knowledge of rights, and it’s important to socialize that information to the people are the most vulnerable and don’t know the basic rights they have—especially in situations like this,” said Torres.

 But for Torres, the imperative to help goes beyond the intellectual. It goes right to the heart.

“I’m really shocked. I’ve encountered so many elderly people who are literally hungry. They don’t have anyone who can help them. They are so depressed and they are alone,” she said. “I tell my friends we need to go to the communities not only to bring food but to bring hugs—and to listen to them, to really listen to them. That is why an integral human development approach is essential in our communities. Public policies need to be revised in a human rights context.”

While The Foundation for Access to Justice is striving to ensure the legal rights of storm-battered islanders, Oxfam is continuing to advocate for their needs. The organization has met directly with top FEMA officials in Washington, DC, to raise these problems and work with FEMA to ensure it does all it can to solve them—even as new concerns loom about the conclusion of FEMA food and diesel distributions.

Oxfam is supporting local efforts to meet Puerto Ricans' most urgent needs in this disaster as well as advocating in Washington for more and better resources for rebuilding.

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