At the end of September of last year, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria. The category 5 hurricane slashed through the island leaving devastation in its wake. A meteorologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research coined it thus: “It was as if a 50 to 60-mile wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw.”
In the coming weeks after the hurricane made landfall, Puerto Rican citizens were without homes, power, food, and water; their governmental infrastructure was equally devastated. The United States was slow to respond with aid to the beleaguered island. The question, in the beginning, regarded the pace and level at which the United States sent ample (or any) aid to Puerto Rico — a territory of the United States. The response was markedly slow and the residents of the island have suffered for it. Now, nearly nine months later, they’re still struggling to rebuild.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has received a staggering 1,118,862 registered requests for disaster assistance as of May 1. That’s what FEMA is there for. However, residents of Puerto Rico are running into bureaucratic red tape and it has caused some 335,748 disaster assistance applicants to be denied. The obstacle? Legal residential documentation.
That is to say, the historic practice of illegal construction and off-the-books housing development in Puerto Rico. Houses built “informally” are numbered around 260,000, which is a low-ball figure. This is mainly troubling for those who may have had houses for generations, though not technically legally documented: “In rural areas, sometimes you have a grandpa who owned a land that was passed down generation after generation and they never registered the property.” Though these properties may have been passed down and bear a family’s name, that’s hardly enough to satisfy FEMA’s requirements for relief aid. The crews sent from the U.S. construction industry, with over 6 million employees, building nearly $1 trillion in structures every year can’t build new houses for people because of paperwork. This problem afflicts notably poorer communities the most, many of whom are still living amongst the wreckage, without clean water, still waiting for help to arrive.
FEMA is making changes to help people in informally built homes receive aid to rebuild, but the process is drawn out at length and is still difficult. An enormous investment of $20 billion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development aims to help these communities rebuild and to help formulate some legal structure to housing in Puerto Rico. As with any amount of granted money, one does not simply swipe a debit card and have new houses up in a week. It’s a time-consuming approval process that, in the meantime, leaves thousands still living in the wake of a disaster almost a year past.