The trauma of losing a home has repeated itself over the past three years for many families: first because of Hurricane María, and then due to the earthquakes. They have learned a lesson. Government help has seldom been a solution.

It took Yahaira Santiago two years to fix the roof that Hurricane María ripped off her home at the La Playa de Ponce sector in the South coast. She had returned home only a few weeks before, when the Jan. 7 earthquake opened the earth in her backyard and left the structure unlivable once again. She didn’t even have time to paint what was built.

That same day, she and her husband, both municipal police officers, sought shelter and then joined the encampment that was built around the art installation that spells Ponce at one of the town’s entrances in the middle of the highway. They returned to their neighborhood after 22 days. Now they sleep in the living room and sometimes on the balcony. From there, they can clearly see the spray painted “X” on the pavement in front of the property that indicates that the home is not safe. They sleep there knowing it’s a risk.

To repair their home, the couple got a $25,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which was the option that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offered to those who did not qualify for other assistance based on their income.

Following the big January earthquake, they are back to a home in which they cannot live. But now, to top it off, they have a debt that they had just begun to pay.

Photo by Alberto Bartolomei | Center for Investigative Journalism

Yahaira Santiago shows on her cell phone the damages suffered by her residence, in poor condition since Hurricane Maria, after the January 7 earthquake.

“[After the earthquakes] FEMA came to inspect the house and I qualified for repair money. They deposited some money and I was also eligible for loans, but I won’t apply for another loan . I’ve gone through that experience,” said Santiago, who hopes to find another house to move to. “I don’t qualify for Section 8 or other aid, so we would have to do this on our own. Everything that’s still livable in the area is very expensive. Everybody who can is looking for a house. Now I have to wait .”

Policeman César Rodríguez-Velázquez also knows what it’s like to be homeless twice. Hurricane María destroyed the wooden structure where he lived in Coto Laurel, Ponce, and the Jan. 7 earthquake destroyed the house he rented with his partner in Tallaboa Encarnación, Peñuelas.

“You can see the backyard from everywhere inside the house. It’s terrible. When the inspectors checked, they could pull the pieces of cement off with their bare hands,” said Rodríguez-Velázquez while adjusting a tent in the same camp around the Ponce letters where Yahaira Santiago and her husband spent three weeks.

After Hurricane Maria, FEMA granted $10,000 to his mother, who was the owner of the house where he lived in Coto Laurel. He and his brothers added to that to rebuild the house.

Now, Rodríguez-Velázquez expects very little from the government.

The first contact he had with FEMA was on Saturday, Jan. 18 and the next day his house was inspected.

“They told me that I had to wait 10 days, that they were going to call me. In other words, make do here for 10 days or as long as it’s necessary,” he shrugged .

The police officer promised his partner, María Echevarría, that they will leave the encampment to move to a house, something he said he would solve on his own, without government help.

“ I’m not going to a shelter. I’m a police officer. I intervened with many people. I’m not going to put my life and hers at risk. I’m not going to a donations center like the disgusting one (Ponce’s Mayor) Mayita has set up at the Paquito Montaner [stadium]. I’m leaving here to a house. If not, I’m staying here,” he said.

Photo by Alberto Bartolomei | Center for Investigative Journalism

César Rodríguez is one of the many residents of Ponce who distrusts the local and federal governments.

The house at Tallaboa Encarnación, from which Rodríguez-Velázquez and Echevarría fled from the morning of Jan. 7 is located at one of the street’s highest points, with a beautiful view of the ocean. From afar, it’s evident that the structure is inhabitable. There are houses nearby that held up better, but their residents sleep in fear, when they can fall asleep. Some spent the first weeks inside their cars and, as the intensity of the quakes has decreased, they have returned to structures that were already affected before the earthquakes by Hurricane Maria’s winds.

That’s the case of Ana Ortiz (fictitious name to protect her identity), a 67-year-old retired teacher who has custody of her niece’s three children. The woman decided to retire after years working as a special education teacher to devote herself to the children: two girls ages 7 and 12, and a four-year-old boy with autism.

The educator’s house is still covered by a blue tarp. It had a zinc roof that Hurricane María blew off.

“The municipality gave me the blue tarp. I have gone through three tarps to protect my belongings from being ruined. FEMA didn’t give me a tarp or anything. They sent a person to inspect and said that only a small part of the house needed fixing, but everything had to be fixed because the wind hit hard and now this earthquake split open a part of the living room,” she explained. “They gave me $800, which doesn’t cover anything.”

Now, Ortiz and the children sleep together in one room in a cement structure in the back of the house. The woman aspires to solve the instability on her own, when her full monthly retirement check for her years as a teacher starts coming in. For now, she’s managing with a Social Security benefit paid before working in the Education Department, and with food stamps to which she is entitled to for adopting the children.

“It’s better if it stays this way. I will fix it little by little. The government has not yet deposited anything I’m owed from retirement. I retired 18 months ago, and they still haven’t made a deposit, but I get by with what I have. I don’t complain. I complain only because they (the children) deserve more. The older girl is already a young lady, that I would like her to have her room, the other one is getting bigger and, you know? It’s hard,” she said.

The fear of losing custody of the minors also stops her from insisting on seeking the aid to which they are entitled.

“That is my fear, that they take the kids away from me. I’ll die. That’s why I hold back,” she said.

The fear that some mothers and legal guardians have that the Family Department will intervene by removing minors because the families refuse to remain in shelters, ask for help, or accept the alternatives provided to move, is a real risk, Legal Aid Attorney Verónica González, confirmed.

She explained the agency can remove children over situations of abuse and, if the children are not in adequate housing conditions, the Family Department can rule is as abuse.

“The Family Department’s obligation and the public policy is to keep families together, and when separated, to reunify them. I don’t believe that the Family Department is in a position to make demands on a family that has suffered damages and has not received help because the house is not in [living] condition. The first alternative cannot be removal. Not asking for help (from the government) can result in more problems, but if that is so, it would be really scandalous,” she said.

In Ponce’s urban center, in front of a two-story house built in 1918, is Elí Antonio Rivera-Morales, 65. He also still has a blue tarp on the portion of the roof that blew off with Hurricane María. He didn’t get it from FEMA, but from a church that visited the street days after the hurricane.

The earthquake separated columns from the structure’s second-floor balcony, which the man, who lives alone, tried to hold together with chains. It doesn’t look like a very effective remedy, but for the handyman, who has lived there since he was born in 1954, it’s better than nothing.

Since the quakes began in the South, he has been sleeping on a mattress in the back of his pickup truck. With best attitude in the face of adversity, he says jokingly, but also seriously, that he sleeps there better than ever, during the chilly nights, as if he had a very powerful air conditioner, and that if he’d known that before, he would have moved his bed sooner.

Rivera-Morales also has no intention of asking FEMA or anyone else for help. “What for?” he asked.

“When María happened, the only thing FEMA did was to leave a piece of paper on the wall there signaling a review of the house. As time passed, it started to fall apart until it was no longer legible,” he said. The federal agency’s staff never came back.

“They gave me nothing. And now, I didn’t request anything. Maybe if I go and apply, when I turn my back, they’ll grab the papers and throw them in the trash. I don’t trust anyone. I can take care of myself,” he said.

Photo by Alberto Bartolomei | Center for Investigative Journalism

Elí Rivera’s house has a blue tarp since September 2017.

Lack of trust, resignation and self-management due to government inefficiency

This lack of confidence and an attitude of solving housing problems on their own — even when people have rights that must be protected by the State — are rooted in past experiences, as analyzed by four experts in psychology, mental health and access to housing.

Clinical Psychologist Yarimar Rosa-Rodríguez explained that the time it takes for government authorities to respond to the emergency causes inertia and uncertainty. Such is the case of Yahaira Santiago and César Rodríguez-Velázquez, whose houses have been declared unsafe, but they are still waiting for official information to take the next step to solve their housing problem.

“There has been no closure for these people. The grief for the loss is there, but while they’re kept waiting, they cannot close the chapter and move on to what’s next. As a country, we have been grieving for almost three years,” said the researcher at the Institute of Psychological Research of the Social Sciences Department at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.

In terms of mental health, the specialist classified the situation as one of endemic stress, due to persistent and repetitive events. One of the phases of this process is acceptance, as psychologist Marc Fried explained in 1982 in his academic article ” Endemic stress: the psychology of resignation and the politics of scarcity.” He established that when the State does not have an answer that allows people to access and secure their basic needs, people give up.

“The body will decide where it will spend most of its energy. If the investment of my energy and my time to turn to the State to try to meet my needs is too much and will not yield results, my own body and my own intuition will choose to protect itself and will invest its energy where I will get some level of response,” Rosa explained.

So, although in a fragmented way and with many difficulties, people, at the individual and family level, collectively in communities and organizations, are assuming the task of supplying part of those responses.

Emotional and psychological support can be of great help in these situations, according to Elithet Silva-Martínez, associate professor of Social Work at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.

“But that support doesn’t necessarily solve the concrete urgency of having a safe home where to be,” said the specialist, stressing that many of the people who face the double trauma of losing their homes multiple times come from experiences of social exclusion, impoverishment, and oppression and have survived other types of traumatic experiences.

Blanca Ortiz, community psychologist and professor at the Social Sciences Department of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, pointed out the self-determination efforts that have grown in communities as opposed to the government’s failure to respond to the emergency and guarantee people’s rights. In the absence of a plan that promotes expedition and efficiency in the response, the lack of trust and community responses flourish in the absence of a State that fulfills its responsibility, she said.

“What we have here is a State that has not been able to effectively handle the two largest emergencies we have experienced in the last 100 years. On top of that, it has made the private sector profitable from these disasters, so from [the point of view of] community psychology, [self-management] is the appropriate response because the government’s answers don’t give us any other option,” Ortiz said.

For González, the idea of taking matters into their own hands is common among people who have had to do it before, and although with great difficulty, they have managed to do it in the past and believe they can do it in the future.

“The process of self-determination, which is historically important in Puerto Rico, must also be respected. It seems to me that the problem comes if we allow the State to get away with not fulfilling its obligation. The reason why these people are in a state of vulnerability is that, in Puerto Rico, access to decent housing is almost nonexistent for people with limited resources and people make do however they can,” González argued.

That’s why Rosa, Ortiz and González agreed that the way of self-management to survive has to go hand-in-hand with demanding and forcing the government to meet its responsibility.

Gonzalez also held the state government and FEMA responsible for the ignorance many people have regarding the aid to which they are entitled and how to apply.

She explained that one of the most frequent situations among people who live in a house for which they have no deed or ownership title, is that they believe they have no right to apply for help for the damages suffered, although the FEMA rule does not require such documents to be eligible for Individual Assistance.

“FEMA’s own regulations establish that the owner of the property is the legal owner, but so is the person who lives there, pays rent and is responsible for its upkeep, or who has a lifetime right to use it,” González said.

Photo by Alberto Bartolomei | Center for Investigative Journalism

Institutional abandonment after natural disasters has a direct effect on the mental health of Puerto Ricans, according to specialists in the field.

Each situation can be claimed through an alternative document approved by FEMA, which is a declaration under oath, under penalty of perjury and does not require being sworn before a notary.

When asked about this issue, FEMA’s Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator in Puerto Rico, Alex Amparo, said the method that FEMA accepted to grant housing damage assistance after Hurricane María would also be valid for the earthquake disaster claims.

He said FEMA has staff in 16 municipalities affected by the earthquakes, a total of 771 people dedicated to working the emergency. There are disaster recovery centers in Guánica, Guayanilla, Peñuelas, Ponce, Utuado, Yauco, Villalba, Lares, Lajas, San Sebastián and Jayuya, where those affected can go to seek individual assistance.

FEMA said that as of Feb. 18, it had received 29,473 requests for assistance, for which some $16 million have already been approved, of which $14.8 million has been allocated for home repairs.

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