Ángel Tirado outside his home which he rebuilt after Hurricane Maria with less than 15, 000 dollars of government aid.
Ángel Tirado outside his home which he rebuilt after Hurricane Maria with less than 15, 000 dollars of government aid. (Carlos Rivera Giusti/Staff)

Editor’s note: This report is part of a series to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

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When Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico, Ángel Tirado Camacho and Zoraida Aponte Colón were just a mile-and-a-half away, locked with their family in the bathroom of an empty cement house, opposite the wooden one where they lived. From the makeshift shelter, the Tirado Aponte family could feel and see through the windows—which were hard to keep closed—as the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years tore the zinc roof off their house in Parcelas Nuevas de Yabucoa.

They knew that all their belongings would likely be lost to the rain. But they had no choice except to wait for the storm to pass. Only then could they begin to survey the destruction. They feared the loss of their home—where they’d lived since the late 1990s and which had become a home for their children and grandchildren, too.

Picture from Angel Tirado and Zoraida Aponte's archive, when they were able to see the destruction caused to their property by the force of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Picture from Angel Tirado and Zoraida Aponte's archive, when they were able to see the destruction caused to their property by the force of Hurricane Maria in 2017. (Carlos Rivera Giusti/Staff)

Meanwhile, 65 miles away, residents in the Luchetti subdivision in Yauco faced their own tragedy: the Coayuco River had overflowed, flooding a neighborhood of 155 homes at the entrance to town. The community was under water for three days.

Eneida García Quiñones and Joselito Velázquez Padilla wanted to get back to Luchetti after riding out the hurricane elsewhere, but that same overflowing river—that flooded their house—made it impossible to get to town via the PR-2 highway.

Zaymi Toro Gotay and Joel Asencio wanted the opposite: to flee from Luchetti, where they’d moved five years earlier. When the high water levels made it impossible, they faced the floods at home with their 4-year-old son.

“We stayed two days because we couldn’t leave—nobody could enter or leave,” Asencio Ubarri recalls. “When we finally had access, we picked up some of our stuff and left the house behind.”

The Asencio Toros survived the flood by sheltering on the roof. When they fled, they were officially left homeless, as were Eneida and Joselito, and Ángel and Zoraida’s family in Yabucoa—and thousands of other people in Puerto Rico who lost their homes from one day to the next.

In the last five years, these three families took disparate paths as they sought to recover from Hurricane María. Their experiences underscore the unevenness of the government’s post-disaster response, including for those with dire needs. And they show how accessing adequate housing in Puerto Rico—despite being a fundamental right—often depends on individual efforts to navigate the system, or, simply, luck.

This week, Hurricane Fiona once again exposed those vulnerabilities, leaving people with the same sense of uncertainty and powerlessness.

Eneida García shows an image on her phone from 2017, when the Coayuco River had overflowed, flooding a neighborhood (Luchetti) of 155 homes.
Eneida García shows an image on her phone from 2017, when the Coayuco River had overflowed, flooding a neighborhood (Luchetti) of 155 homes. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

Five years of uncertainty and waiting in Yauco

The homes in Luchetti are still standing. Many even remain inhabited, despite the fact that government authorities determined soon after Hurricane María that the community should be vacated and, eventually, demolished, due to its flood risk. Even now it’s not hard to find ads from banks and individuals selling homes in Luchetti, for up to $71,500.

Eneida and Joselito are still in the community five years later, but they live in fear of the clouds, afraid a rainstorm could cause a repeat of the tragedy and leave them homeless. That fear became a reality when Fiona threatened to become a hurricane heading towards the Caribbean just a few days ago.

Joselito and Eneida were anxious as they waited for Fiona. When the storm’s arrival was imminent, promising to bring a lot of rain, they placed as many of their belongings as they could on tables, beds and other raised surfaces. They packed up necessities and left their community fearing what it may look like when they returned. In the end, although the community did flood, their property wasn’t damaged.

Eneida grew up in Luchetti with her grandparents, in the same house she inherited and now shares with her husband, where they raised their two children. She still remembers Hurricane Eloísa in 1975, when she was a teenager. Forty-two years later, María’s floods were similar. As predicted by United States Army Corps of Engineers maps, she and Joselito were convinced that it was just a matter of time before it happened again.

Fiona did partially flood the subdivision, but in most cases the water reached just to the doors of the houses. It was a dire new warning for homeowners in Luchetti.

Eneida García y Joselito Velázquez pose with personal documents at their home in Yauco that were damaged by the flooding caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The image was taken on August 9, 2022.
Eneida García y Joselito Velázquez pose with personal documents at their home in Yauco that were damaged by the flooding caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The image was taken on August 9, 2022. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

In 2019, Eneida sought help through the Department of Housing’s “Home Repair, Reconstruction, or Relocation Program,” known as R3. After multiple meetings, consultations, calls and visits to the agency’s Mayagüez office, she was notified in December 2021 that she would receive a relocation voucher.

Eneida, now 66, and Joselito, 62, have a $160,000 voucher from the R3 Program to buy a house. But it’s proven nearly impossible to find a home that meets the requirements established by the R3 Program.

“We couldn’t find a house, and the help they were offering us was so bureaucratic and so removed that I just decided to take matters into my own hands,” says Joselito. In October of last year, he bought a house for $48,000. Located in a hilly section of Yauco’s urban area, the house had been classified as a public nuisance.

Because of that classification, they weren’t eligible to use their R3 voucher. They estimate they’ve invested about $40,000 in repairs thus far, and the house still doesn’t have doors, a bathroom or a kitchen. For now, Joselito installed floor tiles in one of the back rooms to use as a shelter.

Eneida García at the house they bought as a shelter. A property that had been classified as a public nuisance.
Eneida García at the house they bought as a shelter. A property that had been classified as a public nuisance. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

“I’m doing my own mitigation,” says Joselito, a community leader. Last Saturday, with then tropical storm Fiona threatening the southern coast of Puerto Rico, Eneida and Joselito took refuge in the back room of their new house for the first time. When the hurricane finally arrived, they spent hours fastening wooden panels to the gaps in the walls where there are still no doors or windows, and removing rainwater that accumulated in the house.

Even with billions of dollars in federal funds available in Puerto Rico for recovery programs—to date, $2.9 billion has been allocated for R3—, Joselito laments that the vast majority of his neighbors in Luchetti continue to live at the mercy of time and bureaucracy.

The biggest challenge is finding a house. In the south, where the January 2020 earthquakes damaged nearly 1,400 residences, many people are also searching for housing.

When checking out a house that seems to have potential, it’s not uncommon to discover another Luchetti neighbor trying to buy it as well, Eneida says. And even if they do find a house that appears to meet the R3 requirements—which the Housing Department relaxed over the years—, the process of inspection and authorization takes so long that sellers often get tired of waiting. Sellers prefer buyers who aren’t constrained by the program’s requirements.

Since Eneida first applied for R3, her case manager changed four times. Each time, she’s had to explain her situation anew and even resend documents and evidence.

Yauco, Puerto Rico - Eneida García and Joselito Velázquez pose in front of their house in Luchetti on August 9, 2022.
Yauco, Puerto Rico - Eneida García and Joselito Velázquez pose in front of their house in Luchetti on August 9, 2022. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

“Why am I still here? Because of all the setbacks, because right now there are no houses,” says Eneida, who sought psychological help to manage the anxiety she feels when rain is forecasted, but also to learn how to deal with the imminent loss of her home and community.

According to data collected by Joselito, 85 residents or homeowners in Luchetti requested assistance from the R3 Program. Among the reasons that others didn’t apply: some are determined to stay in their homes and community, some don’t think the government would properly recognize the value of their work and investments in their properties, and still others never believed the government aid would materialize. Puerto Rico’s Housing Department says it currently has 39 active cases in the Luchetti neighborhood.

Of the processed requests, some 15 were denied, according to Joselito’s own data. Most denials stemmed from applicants’ who were paying mortgages for their homes at the time—a rule that the department later removed—or because they’d obtained a loan from the Small Business Administration to purchase a house and relocate. In most federally funded reconstruction programs, this “double dipping” is not allowed: you can’t receive aid for the same purpose twice.

Of the 39 families that the Housing Department identified as having active cases, 31 have relocation vouchers, ranging from $160,000 to replace two-bedroom homes to $200,000 for four. The agency did not provide numbers on how many participants in the relocation program in Puerto Rico are already in their new homes.

In Luchetti, to date only four families have managed to relocate to adequate housing, according to data provided by the agency.

Lots of perseverance and a bit of good luck

Zaymi Toro Gotay, Joel Asencio Ubarri and their three children are one of those four families. After the couple climbed to the roof with their youngest son to survive the Coayuco River flooding, they spent nearly three years immersed in paperwork, calls and trips to the R3 Program office in Mayagüez, 27 miles away from Luchetti, to find a new home.

In the process, Zaymi became ill with lupus, an autoimmune condition exacerbated by stress, which forced her to leave her job as a social worker. In late July, just two months ago, they finally moved into a house they were able to buy with the $185,000 voucher they were awarded through the R3 Program.

They attribute their success to a combination of will and pure luck.

Joel, a speech therapist by trade who now works as a gardener, suggested to Zaymi that she call banks to inquire whether they had recently foreclosed any homes in the Yauco area.

Zaymi took his advice. On December 15, 2021, a supervisor at Oriental Bank told her she’d just received paperwork for a house that had been repossessed in Yauco; it would take about a month to put it on the market. The house was located in the development where Zaymi had always dreamed of living. After Zaymi explained the family’s situation, the woman made a promise. Although she’d never worked with the R3 Program and didn’t know what it would require, she wanted to help and promised to call Zaymi when the house hit the market. While waiting for news from the bank, Zaymi was hospitalized again for 10 days due to her lupus, starting on January 7, 2022.

“When I left the hospital, the same day I was discharged, I saw her calls; I had a lot of missed calls from the bank,” Zaymi recalls, still emotional. “I called her the next day, and that’s when we found out that the house was available. My husband and I went right to the R3 office (in Mayagüez) to begin the process.”

Finalizing the sale required countless follow-up phone calls and one last urgent trip to the Mayagüez office—after the bank said they were nearing a time limit to finish the transaction and reported a payment issue with the R3 program.

“The bank needed at the very least a written commitment from R3 that they were interested in buying the property,” Joel remembers. “That’s when we went (to the Housing office in Mayagüez) and told them the whole story: there are no houses, realtors don’t want to deal with our cases, we need help.”

Joel Asencio  Ubarri and Zaymi Toro Gotay in front of their new home in Yauco, Puerto Rico, which they acquired through the R3 program. They were one of four families that have managed to relocate to adequate housing from more than an estimated 80 applications from residents of Luchetti.
Joel Asencio Ubarri and Zaymi Toro Gotay in front of their new home in Yauco, Puerto Rico, which they acquired through the R3 program. They were one of four families that have managed to relocate to adequate housing from more than an estimated 80 applications from residents of Luchetti. (Carlos Giusti/Staff)

Zaymi and Joel proposed to take care of a $500 fee for bank and notary paperwork, and the sale was finally completed. Zaymi Toro Gotay and Joel Asencio Ubarri became the owners of a four-bedroom house in Yauco that’s safely up a hill, far away from the river.

“I see this house, and I am amazed at the blessings of God, after everything we’ve been through,” says Zaymi.

A family united begins again

In Yauco, the residents of Luchetti—sometimes with vouchers of up to $200,000 in hand—jump through hoops to navigate the bureaucracy of post-disaster reconstruction and find a home. In Yabucoa, Ángel Tirado Camacho, Zoraida Aponte Colón and their family had to find a way to make something out of nothing.

When Hurricane María left them homeless, with no clothes or food, Zoraida and Ángel looked desperately for ways to survive. They were seven in the house: the couple, their two oldest daughters—one with a newborn baby—and two youngest sons, who Zoraida and Ángel adopted and were then 11 and 10 years old.

“The only thing left was the floor,” says Ángel, 66. He’s held jobs from textile and mechanical factories in New Jersey to construction work in Puerto Rico.

Archived images from Ángel Tirado y Zoraida Aponte's house in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed their home.
Archived images from Ángel Tirado y Zoraida Aponte's house in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed their home. (Carlos Rivera Giusti/Staff)

In the days after María, Ángel, his children and their neighbors removed trees and debris and tried to create a path on their street in Parcelas Nuevas. Zoraida, then 51, walked around the neighborhood with her daughters seeking information and help. They couldn’t find cell phone service anywhere.

She went nearly two months without communicating with her older children, who live in the United States. One day on a walk, one of her daughters learned about a phone signal in Caguas. So they traveled 26 miles from Yabucoa to Caguas and finally managed to talk to the family in the U.S.

From the United States, their elder son processed a request for emergency assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). On December 14, 2017, FEMA approved $7,666 to replace personal items lost in the hurricane and $6,647 to rebuild their house—a total of $14,313 to start over.

FEMA also approved $1,848 for two months’ rent, but Zoraida and Ángel didn’t use it because they weren’t paying rent at the time.

“When they sent us (the money), we started little by little,” Zoraida says. “We went and bought materials. We carried them inside the house. Even my grandchildren helped me carry blocks, and helped their grandfather mix cement.”

Nearly five years since they received the government aid, there’s still work to be done at Ángel and Zoraida’s house. Essential items like the refrigerator and stove were donated by non-profits contracted by the federal government.

Ángel Tirado standing in a part of the house he built with his own hands on July 27, 2022.
Ángel Tirado standing in a part of the house he built with his own hands on July 27, 2022. (Carlos Rivera Giusti/Staff)

“Honestly, we haven’t finished the house yet because the entire back part is unfinished, and I’m working on it,” says Ángel, who proudly shows off the tiles he installed himself and the wood paneling a friend helped him put up.

“I had to find work because Social Security didn’t cover my expenses. I’m a carpenter, I deal with construction, and the money I earned from that has helped me work on the house little by little,” he says.

Even though it’s incomplete, the house withstood the passage of Hurricane Fiona. This time, the family only lost a few fruit trees from the small farm that Ángel maintains behind the house.

Even with the pending repairs, Zoraida is happy. “We don’t have to run anymore if a storm is coming,” she says.

Ángel Tirado and Zoraida Aponte in the kitchen of the home they built after Hurricane Maria with less than $15,000 of government aid to rebuild.
Ángel Tirado and Zoraida Aponte in the kitchen of the home they built after Hurricane Maria with less than $15,000 of government aid to rebuild. (Carlos Rivera Giusti/Staff)

Now the walls of the house are made of cinder blocks, not wood. On one of those walls in the dining room hangs one of two paintings that survived Hurricane María: six nymphs, lying in the sun in the field, with a lute, basket and flowers. In that same room, Ángel, Zoraida and their children set up a makeshift movie theater on Saturday afternoons, “with nachos, chips and drinks.”

They sit together, on a sofa and chairs, and lose themselves in the film of the day, projected on the back wall. Sometimes they watch mystery films, and other times action ones, but whatever they end up watching, they choose it together.

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