Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria

A year after Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in almost a century, and in the middle of a new hurricane season, storms are a hard topic to avoid on the island. Everyone talks about them. In San Juan, the capital, some high-rise apartment buildings whose windows were blown out are still boarded up. Across the island tens of thousands are still living under blue tarps; canopies placed over people’s roofs intended as a temporary measure, not a permanent feature of the island’s skylines. But at a time when residents need to grieve, the US President Donald Trump has stirred a different, but just as toxic storm, on his Twitter feed.

“The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.”

– Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty


  • Hurricane Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, made landfall on 20 September 2017. It compounded destruction caused by hurricane Irma just weeks before.
  • More than 44% of the population of Puerto Rico lives in poverty, compared to the national US average of approximately 12%.
  • On 28 August 2018, Puerto Rico’s Governor revised the official death count from 64 to 2,975. Prior to that various other studies had estimated the death count to be even higher. US President Trump has denied the numbers.
  • A year after Maria, tens of thousands in Puerto Rico are still living under blue tarps, designed as temporary roofs.
  • After a Federal Court decision on 30 August, Puerto Ricans temporarily housed in the USA lost FEMA’s housing support on 15 September.

Denial and blame: The Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after a George Washington University study lead to the Puerto Rican authorities revising the death toll attributable to Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975, the US President called the response to Hurricane Maria “an unsung success”. A week before the one-year anniversary of Maria’s devastation, he took his Twitter account to deny this revised number of deaths and suggested the US Democratic party were behind falsifying the numbers. Global media and Twitter exploded back at President Trump.

That same day, Amnesty International corroborated satellite imagery showing that stockpiles of USD 22 million worth of potentially vitally needed drinking water were left on tarmac with no sign it was distributed for months on end to hard-hit populations.

Loiza, a municipality of 30,000 people, many Afro-descended, located a 20-minute drive from San Juan, is especially vulnerable to the impact of hurricanes because of its historical marginalization and poverty, and because its trapped between the sea and rivers.

Speaking to Amnesty International in Loiza, Modesta, a community leader broke down in tears of frustration when remembering how people had struggled to get water in the aftermath of the hurricane. “It’s like a loss of human sensibility, and disrespect for people. It’s like you having food in your house and saying to your child that there is no food when you have food in the cupboard,” she said in reaction to the news of the stockpiles of water found.

Modesta talks about the news that 20,833 pallets of bottled water have been sitting on a runway in Ceiba.  © Amnesty International
Modesta talks about the news that 20,833 pallets of bottled water have been sitting on a runway in Ceiba. © Amnesty International

Not only has the US President repeatedly claimed his administration has “done a great job”, but he has consistently blamed Puerto Rico for its financial crisis, and criticized the Mayor of San Juan, an outspoken critic of the Federal response to Hurricane Maria, for “poor leadership.” In fact, only weeks after Maria he tweeted, “Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.” says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of …accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend…We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

The death toll: The struggle for truth on the number of deaths

On June 1, hundreds of shoes were displayed in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol in San Juan in memory of those killed by the hurricane. © RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images
On June 1, hundreds of shoes were displayed in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol in San Juan in memory of those killed by the hurricane. © RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images

In June 2018, after reports brought new information to bear on the number of deaths attributable to Maria, in a spontaneous memorial people laid out hundreds of pairs of shoes outside the Capitol building in San Juan to symbolize the dead. While Puerto Rican authorities did not officially revise the death toll until September, based on the George Washington University study, the battle for truth about the number of people who lost their lives due to Maria began just weeks after the hurricane.

In November, CNN surveyed 112 funeral homes across the island and began to estimate a much higher death toll than initially declared. Puerto Rico’s Centre for Investigative Journalism carried out detailed reporting and eventually took Puerto Rico’s government to court to secure the official registry of deaths. On 4 June, a judge ordered release of the death certificates and other related information.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rican civil society organizations like Taller Salud, a group that empowers women’s access to healthcare and economic development in Loiza said they began informally noting 20-30 deaths a month in Loiza soon after Maria. Without electricity and roofs, simple ulcers quickly developed into septicemia.

Not surprisingly, the George Washington study found that among the highest number of excess deaths occurred in the poorest communities, especially among the elderly.

Annette Martinez-Orabona, Director at the Caribbean Institute for Human Rights and board member of Amnesty International Puerto Rico, says disaggregating the causes of death from the court-ordered information is critical to understanding how and why people died and to ensure non-repetition.

Blue tarps: The symbol of housing crisis in one of the richest countries on the planet

“There is disparate treatment by the United States… that we consider to be discriminatory… an image of the Puerto Rican as blameworthy for the disaster because they haven’t been able to prepare themselves. That was the official discourse. ‘They didn’t take precautions, didn’t recover on time… all a process to isolate people and hold them responsible for the disaster, especially the most poor and vulnerable communities.”

– Ariadna Godreau-Auberhe, Executive Director, Ayuda Legal

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) response in Puerto Rico was the largest and longest single response in the agency’s history, according to a recent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress. As of April 2018, FEMA had committed over USD 12 billion to the response and more than 462,000 houses had received support for essential home repairs or other disaster related assistance. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development also granted the Puerto Rican government USD 20 billion to help with rebuilding.

Yet a year after Maria, more than 166,000 homes are still being re-built or repaired, according to a FEMA press release. And, according to news reports, there are still tens of thousands of families living under blue tarps.

As many as 62% of applicants were denied assistance to rebuild their homes from FEMA, according to one report. Many were refused aid after they were unable to produce the deeds to their homes, a requirement lawyers at Ayuda Legal Huracán Maria, a local organization that has helped many residents navigate through FEMA decisions, say is not established in law. While FEMA provides alternatives to verifying ownership, lawyers say that in practice FEMA requirements were onerous and culturally out of touch.

The USA has ratified human rights instruments that require distribution of emergency aid and assistance to be done in way that is not discriminatory. Yet for Ayuda Legal, the way people who lost their homes were treated by FEMA was a form of “double victimization”. Multiple sources who spoke to Amnesty International say FEMA largely required applications for assistance to be made online at a time when there was still no electricity. Initially FEMA officials did not speak Spanish, a barrier on a Spanish-speaking island. And those that did receive financial support often did not obtain sufficient funds to build back their homes or fix their roof.

Carmen, a Loiza resident, still lives with a blue tarp on her roof, a year after Hurricane Maria.  © Amnesty International
Carmen, a Loiza resident, still lives with a blue tarp on her roof, a year after Hurricane Maria. © Amnesty International

Carmen, 57, is one of these people. With no zinc to stop the rain permeating her roof, each time it rains the floor floods and the walls leak. Like many others who lost their roofs, Carmen began filling out FEMA forms to ask for assistance soon after Maria. She says that inspectors first came in November 2017 to take measurements and photos of the damage. But after months of applications, appeals and paperwork, according to documents Amnesty International was able to see, FEMA only paid around USD 2,300 for home reparations, in addition to some costs for personal items and rent. Carmen says that the builders she would need to hire to replace the roof have quoted the roof reparations at USD 16,000 (in a country where the annual average household income was just over USD 19,000 in 2016). Carmen is currently not employed and says her husband works just a few hours a week due to health problems and has no other way to replace the roof.

Legal aid groups say FEMA bureaucracy is denying people’s right to dignified housing.  ©Amnesty International
Legal aid groups say FEMA bureaucracy is denying people’s right to dignified housing. ©Amnesty International

On 8 September, when warnings were announced for Hurricane Isaac, there were approximately 350 families in Loiza still living under blue tarps, according to Taller Salud.

Tania Rosario Mendez, Executive Director of Taller Salud, also believes FEMA’s response has been “fragmented and arbitrary” and that their requirements fail to take into account the cultural context of Puerto Rico where families often informally share homes without legally transferring ownership.

Similarly, Modesta says that when FEMA official first arrived in Loiza they had outdated maps that did not reflect the reality of the community where multiple families live on one plot of land which has been passed down between generations.

Amnesty International spoke to one resident of Loiza who has been unable to replace the roof of the family home which she and her siblings inherited from their parents after their deaths because the deed was never transferred into the children’s names. A year after Maria, the blue tarp which covers the roof flaps around in the wind and creates a stifling damp heat inside.

In a FEMA press release dated 31 July, the agency stated: “We know that many survivors do not have standard proofs of ownership or occupancy,”…. “We’re working to remove these obstacles and ensure eligible survivors get the assistance they need to recover.” It goes on to say, “Survivors who were initially denied repair or replacement assistance on account of unverified ownership or occupancy can contact local legal aid groups for help completing their appeals.”

This is precisely the kind of bureaucracy that legal aid groups say is denying people’s right to dignified housing in one of the richest countries on the planet.

Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still living under blue tarps like the one in this home.  ©Amnesty International
Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still living under blue tarps like the one in this home. ©Amnesty International

Another Loiza resident told Amnesty International that when FEMA first visited the land where her modest wooden home had once stood, the damage was so severe they did not believe that a home had ever actually been there. Eventually, after an appeal and long wait, she was declared eligible for funding and she has started to build a new home, but she is only part way and the funds are insufficient for her to finish it.

The blue tarps create a stifling damp heat inside homes which community leaders say leaves residents, especially the elderly, susceptible to illnesses. ©Amnesty International
The blue tarps create a stifling damp heat inside homes which community leaders say leaves residents, especially the elderly, susceptible to illnesses. ©Amnesty International

In another low-income community, Caño Martin Peña, home to 26,000 people, Puerto Rican organization Corporación ENLACE is still struggling to determine how many people still live without roofs. After Maria their community organizers estimated that some 1,200 roofs had been totally or partially destroyed. A year later, with funding from private donations they have fixed 54, but they say many residents remain under blue tarps, including those denied assistance from FEMA, and renters whose landlords have not fixed their properties. They say around half of their residents are elderly and live alone and are particularly susceptible to diseases caused by damp and dirty water coming into their homes, including asthma, dermatitis, and leptospirosis (a disease caused by contaminated water and by rats).

But it’s not just people on the island that remain precariously housed. Many Puerto Ricans were temporarily relocated in hotels in the US following Maria. After a Federal Court decision on 30 August, people housed in this way lost FEMA’s housing support on 15 September. None of the NGOs Amnesty International spoke to were clear what would happen to those Puerto Ricans next.

The underlying forces: austerity measures, poverty, and failure to invest in infrastructure

For nearly everyone Amnesty International spoke to, Maria brought to the surface underlying human rights concerns that have been present for decades.

More than 44% of the of the population of Puerto Rico lives in poverty, compared with the US national average of 12%. The country also faces a serious financial crisis as a result of crippling external debt of more than USD 70 billion. Despite repeated calls from local civil society organizations, the government of Puerto Rico has yet to conduct a thorough audit of its debt, which one report suggests could have been partially issued illegally. For activists, not only is it critical to hold to account those who put the country in such extreme debt, but an audit is necessary to identify the errors that lead to overspending to ensure it does not happen again.

The Financial Oversight and Management Board, established by US authorities in 2016, implemented several austerity measures during 2017. Following his visit to the island, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty found:“…There is little indication that social protection concerns feature in a meaningful way in the Board’s analyses.”

Since at least 2016, protests against austerity measures which have seen significant cuts to education and healthcare, have taken place regularly, mobilizing thousands of people from diverse sectors of society. Amnesty International documented how authorities responded violently to these demonstrators, using excessive force.

Worryingly, the recent GAO report cited Puerto Rico’s “outdated local infrastructure” as a key challenge for FEMA’s operations as it had not taken 50-year old infrastructure into account when developing the emergency plans. When Maria took out the power grid, communications and transportation infrastructure, it severely impacted FEMA’s response, and left many people’s right to healthcare and other basic services at risk.

While data about when and how deaths occurred is yet to be carefully analysed, available information suggests that many of the deaths could have been linked to the lack of electricity needed to run hospitals.

Lack of access to information and meaningful participation

Lack of transparency about decision-making and the absence of opportunities for real participation has been a defining characteristic of the response to Maria, according to NGOs and academics.

Just as Hurricane Isaac was approaching days ago, in the lead-up to Maria’s anniversary, the local government announced that a new emergency plan has been developed but stated that it would only make parts of it public, according to news reports.

Eva Prados at Auditoria Ya, a campaign calling for an audit of the debt, says it is precisely the complexity of how austerity measures are being implemented that has made it easy for residents to be left at the margin of decision-making when it comes to allocating recovery spending.

Meanwhile community leaders and Puerto Rican organizations say that affected communities have plans and ideas about reconstruction, but the Puerto Rican government has not created spaces for these ideas to be meaningfully shared.

Climate change and human rights

It is not possible to pinpoint to what extent climate change was directly responsible for Maria’s brutish force. But it is clear that climate change impacts the most marginalized communities hardest. And as more extreme weather events and natural disasters linked to the heating of the planet occur, the US Federal and Puerto Rican governments have a growing responsibility to prevent and reduce disaster risk; and must work to reduce exposure and vulnerability in policy, practice and law, and maximize the participation of communities most affected by disasters. US President Trump’s denial of climate change just exacerbates the problem all Caribbean islands face as the earth warms and brews further human insecurity for future storm seasons.

The Alternative

As Puerto Rico continues to prepare for the rest of the hurricane season, there is an alternative.

For Modesta in Loiza, while Hurricane Maria was a disaster it was also a blessing. She says immediately after the storm community leaders self-organized and began to carry out censuses of their needs and numbered houses so that when FEMA arrived they were prepared. Local organizations say communities know precisely what is needed, they just need to be listened to. The Puerto Rican government especially needs to create more spaces to meaningfully involve communities in future emergency planning and mitigating the response to hurricanes.

Additionally, as Puerto Rico rebuilds, both the Federal and Puerto Rican governments and the Fiscal Board established by the US Congress, must be more transparent about their decision-making.

Finally, instead of violently pushing back against ordinary people protesting austerity measures, as it did this 1 May, the Puerto Rican government must commit to increased dialogue with islanders still reeling from a year of hardship and grief.