Thousands Of Puerto Ricans Are Still In Shelters. Now What?

Nov 14, 2017
Originally published on November 14, 2017 4:22 am

For Yamyria Morales, her baby daughter and 2 year old son Jonael, home for now is a couple of cots in an elementary school gymnasium in Vega Alta, an hour west of San Juan.

"I've lost track of when I arrived here," Morales says. "It's been really hard."

Morales, a 25-year-old single mom, came to the shelter with her kids and her father just days after Hurricane Maria destroyed her wooden home in Sabana Hoyos, about 20 miles away.

"Whatever little I had, I lost," she says.

Now, nearly two months after Maria, Morales's father is hospitalized with a severe fungal infection, and she and her children are among more than 2,000 people across the island still living in shelters.

As the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Puerto Rico's government try to transition from emergency response to long-term recovery, emptying shelters like this one is a priority - especially since many of them are located in schools that need to re-open. The trouble is, the people staying in the shelters don't have anywhere else to go.

Mike Byrne is in charge of the FEMA response in Puerto Rico. He says the agency routinely provides temporary housing in hotels after mainland disasters. But Puerto Rico poses special challenges. Many hotels are still closed. Others are filled with emergency responders and power crews working to restore the island's badly damaged electric grid.

So, Byrne says, FEMA is considering something new: chartering planes to fly people to New York or Florida, where hotel rooms are more abundant.

"It's better than leaving them in the condition they're in," Byrne says. He argues that if people are still in shelters, it's because they don't have another option.

"We want them to have another option," he says.

But Byrne says many Puerto Ricans aren't enthusiastic about leaving the island.

"They want to work on rebuilding their homes" says Byrne, "they want to focus on coming back to some sense of normalcy, and yanking your family a thousand or two thousand miles away is not going to help with that."

Yamyria Morales is one of those who doesn't want to leave. She says FEMA has offered to fly her and the children to Florida or New York, where they would be put up for a few months in a hotel, but she's not interested.

"Not right now," Morales says. "My dad is sick, and I need to be here."

She still hopes FEMA will find her family an apartment nearby.

Thirty-nine families are still living at the shelter in Vega Alta, including Morales and her kids. Luis Vasquez is with FEMA, and has been interviewing the families with an eye toward getting them out of the school gymnasium and into temporary housing elsewhere.

But, Vasquez says, there aren't a lot of apartments or houses available on the island.

"A lot of them were damaged. A lot of them are still not being repaired or made habitable" says Vazquez, "and some have already been taken."

FEMA offers grants of up to $33,000 to help homeowners repair their houses. But Vasquez says many people inherited their homes from a parent or family member and can't prove the houses are theirs. The agency only accepts official government documentation such as deeds, titles, or property tax receipts, as proof of ownership.

54-year-old Roberto Fret's house is just across the street from the Vega Alta shelter. He came to the shelter with his wife and two teenage children on Tuesday September 19, the day before Maria hit.

They still haven't been able to move back home. The hurricane blew the zinc roof off of Fret's house, scattering twisted pieces of it across his back yard. Some landed on his car, breaking windows and crushing the roof.

A FEMA team put a tarp and temporary roof frame up, but Fret says the work wasn't done properly. Climbing a ladder, he points at pooling water and visible holes in the tarp. "Water still comes in whenever it rains," he says.

Fret just heard about FEMA's offer to fly him and his family to New York or Florida. He has family in both places, though he has a job on the island managing a book warehouse for the Department of Education. But he likes the offer.

"It's the best option," he says. "I'll take it."

It won't take him long to fix his house, he says - once he gets his check from FEMA. But in the meantime, he says he and his family have to get out of the shelter.

"We are affected," he says pointing to his head, "our mental health will improve if we leave.

"All of us are affected emotionally and mentally because help hasn't arrived yet. We're just waiting."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So many people in Puerto Rico still have no electricity, and some people in Puerto Rico still have no homes because their houses were destroyed by Hurricane Maria. More than 2,000 Puerto Ricans are still living in shelters. As FEMA and Puerto Rico's government try to move from response to recovery they have set a priority to find more permanent homes, but local hotels are filled to capacity. NPR's Greg Allen reports that's forcing emergency managers to look off the island for temporary housing.

JONAEL MORALES: Mama.

YAMYRIA MORALES: (Laughter, speaking Spanish) Mama.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For Yamyria Morales, her baby daughter and 2-year-old son Jonael, home for now is a couple of cots in a gymnasium at an elementary school in Vega Alta, an hour west of San Juan.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: "I've lost track of exactly when I arrived here," Morales says. It was just days after Hurricane Maria destroyed her home.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: "I had a wooden house. The little I had, I lost," she says. "I only have kitchen appliances left, but I don't know if they work. I lost my son's bed and my daughter's crib." Morales is alone in the shelter with her two small children. FEMA has offered to fly her and her children to Florida or New York where they would be put up for a few months in a hotel. She's not interested.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: "Not right now," Morales says. "My dad is sick, and I need to be here. I told them I couldn't take the offer right now. I'd rather stay in Puerto Rico." Yamyria Morales is hoping FEMA will find an apartment for her nearby. Mike Byrne, the man in charge of the FEMA response in Puerto Rico, says the agency routinely houses people temporarily in hotels after disasters.

In Puerto Rico, though, many hotels are still closed. Others are full with emergency responders and crews working to restore the power grid. Because of that, Byrne says, FEMA is considering something new - chartering a plane to fly people to New York or Florida, where they'd stay in hotels.

MIKE BYRNE: It's better than leaving them in the condition that they're in. People that are still in shelters, you know, generally don't have any other options. We want them to have another option.

ALLEN: But so far, Byrne says, there are few takers.

BYRNE: We're seeing that people want to stay here. They want to work on rebuilding their homes. They want to focus on coming back and some sense of normalcy. And yanking your family and taking it 1,000, 2,000 miles away is not going to help with that.

ALLEN: At the shelter in Vega Alta, there are still 39 families staying here, including Yamyria Morales and her children. Luis Vasquez is with FEMA. He's been interviewing people with an eye toward getting them out of the school gymnasium and into temporary housing somewhere. But Vasquez says the problem is there aren't a lot of apartments or houses available on the island.

LUIS VASQUEZ: A lot of them were damaged. A lot of them are still not being repaired or made habitable. And some of them have already been taken.

ALLEN: FEMA offers grants of up to $33,000 to help homeowners repair their houses. But Vasquez says many people lack the paperwork needed to prove ownership.

VASQUEZ: We only accept deeds, titles, property tax receipts or any type of official government documentation to show that you are the one responsible for the house.

ALLEN: As a last resort, Vasquez says, FEMA will sometimes accept a notarized statement. But it makes for a time-consuming process, one that increases the number of people needing temporary shelter. Roberto Fret's house is just across the street from the Vega Alta shelter. He, his wife and two teenage children took shelter there a day before Maria hit. The hurricane blew the roof off his home. What remains is scattered in pieces in his backyard. A FEMA team put up a tarp and a temporary roof frame, but Fret says it's not doing the job. Water still comes in whenever it rains. Climbing a ladder, he shows me the problems with his roof.

Oh, yeah, and the water's still pooling up here. Yeah. Oh, there's holes in the tarp, they're showing me.

ROBERTO FRET: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Yep.

Fret just heard about FEMA's offer to fly him and his family to a hotel room in New York or Florida.

FRET: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: He's going. It's the best option, he says. It won't take him long to fix his house once he gets his check from FEMA. But in the meantime, he says, he and his family have to get out of the shelter.

FRET: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Pointing to his head, Fret says, "we're affected. Our mental health will improve if we leave. All of us are affected emotionally and mentally because help hasn't arrived yet. We are just waiting." Greg Allen, NPR News, Vega Alta, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS PETTER MOLVAER'S "MADDAGALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.