The fact that, 20 months after Hurricane María, about 30,000 families still live in structures with fragile tarps as roofs makes it imperative for the state, federal and municipal authorities to take the strongest action to protect the lives of thousands of adults and children who are part of the most vulnerable sectors of the population.
One week before the start of a new hurricane season, it is necessary to prevent these people’s safety and health from remaining at the mercy of bureaucratic complications.
The stories this newspaper published last Saturday are heartbreaking. A 75-year-old widower, without transportation, who takes care of his 48 and 38-year-old children, both mental patients. María Quiñones, not long ago struck by a motor vehicle, who lives with a tracheotomy. Gaspar Rodríguez, 62, who has “chivos” or small occasional jobs.
They are all still living under tarps. All for the same reason: lack of documentation to prove to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that the houses where they live in precarious conditions belong to them or that they are living there with the authorization of their owners. Without such documentation, according to FEMA regulations, they cannot access assistance to repair their homes.
Informal housing is a huge problem in Puerto Rico, where there is a long tradition of handing houses and land to family members without any documents. According to the Home Builders Association, about half of the houses lack any permits.
Several organizations warned that such a reality would cause problems when facing FEMA’s strict requirements. No one heard the warnings and now we see painful consequences. However, regretting what might have been and didn't happen, doesn't resolve anything.
Federal, state and municipal authorities need to urgently identify the mechanisms and/or programs for people still living under tarps to access the aid to repair their houses or to be relocated.
Today it hurts the deepest sensibility of the Puerto Rican soul to see so many brothers and sisters going through such unfortunate situations and no one seems to be moved by that.
We believe that if they seek, they might be a program – whether state, federal or municipal – to help these people. Surely, only bureaucratic obstacles prevent these people from receiving the help they need so urgently.
It is also time to fine-tune contingency plans in each town so that, in the event of a short-term hurricane, to first move these families to secure structures if their houses have not been repaired to ensure a safe roof.
It is also convenient to reactivate community brigades and missions, as well as religious entities, companies, and other non-governmental sectors to contribute to the roof reconstruction and other essential parts of thehouses where so many humble families live so precariously.
Such a sad situation must serve to look for the way to prevent the same from happening again on the island. For decades, we have known about a large number of houses without the proper documents and about irregular constructions, however, authorities have rarely comprehensively addressed that situation.
It is time to establish a plan or census to regularize the situation of this huge number of families. It is also important that the people in this situation look themselves in the mirror of those who didn’t receive help because they didn't have their documentation up to date and, those who are in conditions, to take steps to regularize their situation.
Hurricanes are a reality in the Puerto Rican life. Government assistance is vital to have a decent life, once the tragedy shakes us. But today, 30,000 Puerto Ricans still lack that opportunity, as if María happened just yesterday. This is unacceptable at this point. We must prevent hardships. Help must come now.