Almost five years to the day after Hurricane Maria brought catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona upended lives across the island when it came ashore on September 18. Over the next several days, torrential rainfall drenched the island, with some areas receiving over 30 inches of rain. Storm surge from the hurricane inundated coastal regions, and winds gusted to as high as 113 mph. Power service to the entire island was quickly lost after the storm made landfall, with water service cut off for over one-third of the island’s population. Bridges and roads became impassable as landslides and swollen rivers impacted infrastructure and damaged homes throughout the mountainous interior. While damage assessments are currently ongoing as officials work to gain access to now-isolated areas and neighborhoods, aerial views and reports from municipal officials indicate that damage has been catastrophic in many areas. In addition to the physical turmoil created by Hurricane Fiona, the storm has brought significant emotional trauma to those who witnessed Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, as they must once again confront what is sure to be a lengthy recovery process.
President Biden, who declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico prior to the hurricane making landfall, vowed to provide whatever assistance was needed during the response and recovery from the storm. FEMA – mindful of the criticism it received for its response to Hurricane Maria – had prepositioned hundreds of personnel on the island prior to Hurricane Fiona’s arrival. Immediately following the storm, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell arrived on the island and remained for several days, assisting in the coordination of the initial stages of the response.
Despite these preparations, several of the most vulnerable communities on the island – mostly households with low incomes and immigrant populations – were left off the list of municipalities recommended for FEMA Individual Assistance (IA) approval, which allows disaster survivors to directly apply to FEMA for assistance. While additional amendments are expected to expand the number of municipalities on the list, many on the island view the omission as a sign that the federal government has not improved since the days immediately following Hurricane Maria. NLIHC and its Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) partner Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico co-signed a letter sent immediately following the initial announcement urging FEMA to expand the scope of the declaration.
Given Puerto Rico’s relatively recent experience of the barriers created by the country’s disaster recovery system, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico drafted a letter requesting that HUD and FEMA take action to avoid those barriers as the recovery to this new disaster begins. That letter, co-signed by over 30 national, state, and Puerto Rican organizations, was sent on September 23. Specifically, the letter demanded that the agencies:
- Include municipalities deeply affected by the disaster in the Major Declaration of Disaster.
- Launch a large-scale educational campaign to make residents aware of the availability of FEMA assistance, including eligibility for homeowners without formal title.
- Ensure that eligible Immigrant Households can apply for FEMA assistance.
- Ensure that disaster assistance reaches affected families in a timely and equitable manner.
- Provide clear and accurate information regarding the rights of people living in flood zones to apply and obtain disaster assistance.
- Activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program to ensure Puerto Rican survivors displaced to the continental United States have an affordable place to call home while they get back on their feet.
- Require the local governments to create and develop displacement minimization strategies and ensure that necessary relocations prioritize climate and environmental justice, community social issues, and adequate access to essential services.
- Request that the DHS Office of the Inspector General, along with the HUD Office of the Inspector General, investigate the failure to make progress on Hurricane Maria-related long-term recovery goals.
- Implement a community oversight and monitoring structure for Hurricane Fiona response and recovery.
- Suspend all Hurricane Maria-related recoupment payments while the Hurricane Fiona period of assistance is in effect.
Read the Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and NLIHC letter on the disaster declaration at: https://bit.ly/3SKsWuT
Read the sign-on letter with demands to remove barriers for Hurricane Fiona recovery at: https://bit.ly/3LCFpOB