• Wed. Mar 3rd, 2021

Puerto Rico sees more pain, little progress 3 years after Hurricane Maria

Angel Perez was on his way to visit his parents in his native Arecibo, a coastal town about an hour west of where he now lives in Trujillo Alto, when an unexpected flash flood blocked his route last Sunday.

“There was some rain, but there was no indication that they were dangerous. All the neighbors were at home. No one expected this,” said Perez, 35. Despite his efforts to gather neighbors and clean up clogged sewers, community members say they have long lacked proper maintenance. Several families lost everything after six feet of water rushed into their homes, he said.

The scene reminded him of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath.

“As a community social worker, I can tell you that Puerto Rico’s recovery, if it can be called that, didn’t come thanks to the government. It came from non-profit associations, it came from the neighbors themselves, it came from foundations, it came from the hands of other people who supported the families that suffered the most,” Perez said in Spanish.

Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, 2017, ultimately killing at least 2,975 people; it was the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years.

Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria in Lares, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 6, 2017.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans left for the mainland, many temporarily and some permanently. Island residents had no full power for almost a year. The health system was overwhelmed and an understaffed forensics sciences department couldn’t keep up with the bodies piling up during the hurricane’s aftermath.

Three years later, there’s frustration that crises have only compounded — there’s been a series of destructive earthquakes and more recently the coronavirus pandemic — while the Trump administration and island officials haven’t made any real progress when it comes to updating the island’s antiquated electrical grid and rebuilding destroyed houses.

“If you put somebody in power, here in Puerto Rico or in the U.S., that’s not prepared to lead, it’s going to cost you lives and it’s going to cost you progress,” Miguel Soto-Class, founder and president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank, told NBC News. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to talk about this as a life or death issue because that’s exactly what we’re seeing.”

Hurricane Maria resulted in about $90 billion in damages, making it the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Last December, Puerto Rico was hit by a sequence of seismic events that triggered multiple strong earthquakes that brought down hundreds of homes and schools in January. Well over 9,800 tremors have been registered on the island since then.

Coronavirus cases and deaths are also rising in Puerto Rico as the island continues to grapple with austerity measures as it works to get out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

A man walks pass by downed electricity poles in the Punta Santiago beachfront neighborhood in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 8, 2017.Ricardo Arduengo / for NBC News

The federal government has allocated nearly $50 billion to help the island with multiple disasters. But most of the money, specifically funds for housing and infrastructure relief, haven’t made their way to communities on the island. Puerto Rico has received $16.7 billion, according to Puerto Rico’s Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience.

Over the same time period, President Donald Trump has doubled down multiple times on previous comments opposing disaster funding for Puerto Rico, while also disputing the hurricane’s death toll and failing to acknowledge such deaths.

“We’ve seen so much fanfare around these federal funds in the past that never actually get here or once you look at the fine print, there are so many restrictions, it’s almost as if you haven’t been giving them,” said Soto-Class.

The Trump administration said Friday that FEMA will award almost $13 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and education system in the next five to seven years, “the largest obligations of funding ever awarded.” But Congress had approved such aid in 2018. Trump and members of his administration made it available to Puerto Rico two years later and 43 days before November’s presidential elections.

“It’s very ironic that it happened so close to the elections,” said Soto-Class.