One Year after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

1. Virgin Islands Link

The Rev. Lenroy K. Cabey, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on St. Thomas, points to the waterline following last year’s hurricanes.

“Last year, Hurricane Irma crossed the Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm on Sept. 6, 2017, causing extensive damage. Two weeks later, on Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria passed over the islands as a Category 5 storm before making landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane. The two hurricanes led to thousands of deaths and more than $102 billion in damages. Damage to church-owned properties is $7 million, according to Church Insurance, which insures church buildings.

“Irma came and left us with something to think about, and Maria came in and finished the job,” said Rita Payne-Samuel, Episcopal Church Women president at Nazareth-by-the Sea Episcopal Church on St. Thomas.

“Still, the hurricanes reinforced what it means to be church, which goes beyond the buildings.

“That’s the human part of church and fellowship,” Payne-Samuel said. “People just got together and helped each other.”

2. Puerto Rico Mission trip from Lancaster Va. to help Puerto Rico

“The job site, about a 10 minute drive, was the home of an elderly couple recommended by the clergy at San Pablo’s.

“The work included removing debris from the roof and sealing it, cleaning the property of debris, assisting in the installation of electric service, purchasing and installing a new gas stove, cleaning and painting several rooms in the house, repairing the sink, toilet and shower in the bathroom and installing a cinder block barrier on the second floor porch.”

There is much work to be do.

Of 13,000 “cyclone events” since 1950, the Climate Impact Lab says, only five were more intense than Maria—and all of those were in the Pacific and struck smaller land masses. It took eight hours for Maria to traverse Puerto Rico, moving southeast to northwest with average wind speeds of 123 m.p.h.

The next morning, people ventured outside to a new world. The island had changed color, from leaf green to the gray brown of tree trunks laced black by thrown soil. “It was like they threw a bomb, because everything looked burnt,” says Zenaida Sánchez, 67.

Reported from Reuters” Shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.”

“The storm knocked out power and communications to virtually all of island’s 3.2 million residents, while destroying the homes of thousands. More than 472,000 homes across Puerto Rico were damaged by Hurricane Maria

“Even before the Category-4 storm hit, Puerto Rico was financially bankrupt with $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities it cannot pay. A year after Maria, the island is far from prepared for the next big storm, with an ever-fragile power grid, damaged infrastructure and the same crippling debt.

“There are still some 45,000 homes with so-called “blue roofs,” or tarps installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The San Juan mayor has noted that the island has seen only a fraction of almost $50 billion in recovery funds Congress approved, including the $20 billion in HUD funds.”

From the NY Times – “In August, a team of New York Times journalists visited Punta Santiago, a small town in Puerto Rico near where Hurricane Maria made landfall one year ago. We documented the damage that remains from the storm in more than 150 homes. Many are living in ruin a year later, still awaiting repairs. In house after house, it looks like the hurricane just hit.

“Times journalists visited 163 homes in two neighborhoods in Punta Santiago to cover what progress had been made in the last 12 months.

NY Times interactive presentation

“They found a community with signs of fresh paint and, in some of the middle-class parts of town, rebuilt rooms and new furniture.

“But in neighborhoods where residents live on meager pensions and disability checks, there were gutted kitchens and electrical wires running randomly along unfinished walls. Roofs were covered with plywood or plastic, many near collapse. Some houses still had no running water. A number of families lived in single rooms in unfurnished houses, sleeping on the floor.

“Though the United States set aside billions to repair homes in Puerto Rico, many still have gutted kitchens, black mold and collapsed roofs. Time and again, Puerto Ricans who asked FEMA for help with the most basic repairs to their homes waited months for help. Of those awarded a repair grant from FEMA, about two-thirds received less than $3,000. ‘I am thankful for the little they gave me,” one woman said, “but thanks for nothing.'”

“..the record in Punta Santiago and elsewhere shows that the federal government failed to take into account the poverty that plagued the island even before the storm. Unlike survivors of hurricanes along the Atlantic Seaboard or the Texas Gulf Coast, many Puerto Ricans were not able to take FEMA’s small assistance grants and couple them with their own resources to make their homes habitable again — they had no savings or credit to fall back on.

“Up to a third of all Puerto Ricans do not have bank accounts. Only 15 percent of those who applied for FEMA help had homeowner’s insurance, and 3 percent had flood insurance.

“The result is that hundreds of thousands of people across the island are still living in homes in desperate need of repair.

“FEMA’s housing help was slow in arriving, plagued by bureaucratic delays and regulations that failed to take into account the hundreds of thousands in Puerto Rico who had no clear title to their properties.

“Time and again, people asked for help in getting the most basic kinds of repairs — for missing roofs, collapsed walls, dangerous mold, soaked belongings — then waited for months and often did not get enough to even start the process.

“Of the 1.1 million households who requested help from FEMA, about 58 percent were denied. Among those who appealed, 75 percent were rejected again. The median grant given to repair homes was $1,800, compared with about $9,127 paid out to survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, according to a Times analysis.

“All told, FEMA spent nearly twice as much for housing repair grants in Texas as it did in Puerto Rico, though the money went to 51,000 fewer people.”

From the Washington Post

“If the people of Puerto Rico faced devastation in September 2017, they have been facing disruption ever since. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey across the island finds that 25 percent of Puerto Ricans say their daily lives are still disrupted a year after Maria. Some 39 percent of residents here say their lives are largely back to normal, while 36 percent say their lives are almost back to normal.

“Residents in the eastern region, like those in Naguabo, went without power far longer than those in other parts of the island. Three-quarters say grid power was not restored until January or later, more than three months after Maria hit, compared with half or less in other regions of the island. In the eastern region, one-fifth of residents went more than half a year without electricity. Even now, a year later, the power comes and goes now, and it is sometimes out for hours at a time.

“Many didn’t have safe water to drink. Others struggled to get health care. Many lost their jobs or had other economic setbacks, especially in places like this town, which relies heavily on the fishing industry and farming, both upended because of the storm.”

Power restoration is at a crawl because the grid collapsed, the utility is bankrupt and the logistics are daunting: Crews and supplies have to come from the mainland, then make their way into rugged interior areas like Utuado. Many roads remain impassable, and hundreds are still isolated.
The deluge of rain created mudslides that toppled transmission lines, broke water pipes and pushed homes down hills. The family that lived in this house escaped just in time. The green lushness has returned to the mountains, though it is broken by huge gashes of mud.

There was a chain reaction of effects on people. Many didn’t have safe water to drink. Others struggled to get health care. Many lost their jobs or had other economic setbacks, especially in places which relied heavily on the fishing industry and farming, both upended because of the storm. The near collapse of Naguabo’s fishing industry was mirrored in the ranches that sprawl across the nearby valleys and rolling hills. Milk spoiled that could not be shipped

The cost of rebuilding damaged structures and relying on generators for months has left families and businesses stripped financially. Jobs are more scarce, and the economic hardships of the region are evolving into crises. The local Sam’s Club warehouse closed its doors after the hurricane, laying off scores of workers.]

The infrastructure in Naguabo was crumbling before the storm, and Maria weakened it: Several highways lost giant chunks of roadway, and bridges were washed out and often closed for construction, cutting off residents in nearby barrios

Mental health emergencies have spiked by more than 60 percent in Naguabo. A cluster of suicides in April and May — most of them affecting adolescents — prompted physicians such as Negron to partner with specialized service providers to get a handle on what many say could be the leading edge of a mental health catastrophe.

The deepening need for treatment has been aggravated by the flight of specialists and physicians to the mainland United States, where better salaries and job opportunities await. Hospitals have had difficulty finding doctors willing to travel from metro San Juan to cover shifts in rural hospitals. Insurers pay less per patient in this economically depressed area.