The federal case management program for Hurricane María survivors fails to help people steer through the bureaucratic recovery process

A federal program to connect Hurricane María victims with the aid they needed resulted in million-dollar contracts for nonprofit organizations, mostly US-based, and disappointment among those who believed that they would finally rise above the crisis they have faced after the disaster.

In the summer of 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) unveiled the Disaster Case Management Program and provided more than $70 million in grants to nine nonprofit organizations that should have worked hand-in-hand with survivors to develop and carry out a recovery plan, and see it through completion.

But a probe by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) revealed that, despite the huge expenditure of public funds, practically half of the cases that were opened were not seen to fruition, there were doubled efforts, and although it generated good salaries for those who worked during the 18 months it lasted, the program ended and many survivors still had the same needs as when the process began.

Such was the case with Mercedes Milagros Peña, who in June 2019 still waited for the help she was promised by a case manager. The assistance to repair her house in the Villa Hugo II sector of Canóvanas never came. Milagros, as her neighbors knew her, died this summer of a heart attack. She was 62 years old.

FEMA didn’t come up with the Disaster Case Management Program to address the disaster response in Puerto Rico. The federal agency has managed post-disaster cases since the 1980s, although it was in 2009 when it implemented a pilot program dedicated exclusively to disaster case management to address the years-long crisis faced by survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The case management concept emerges from social work. It aims to offer direct and personalized support and assistance for disaster survivors given how overwhelming it can be, for someone who has faced trauma, to steer through government bureaucracy and find alternatives to overcome hurricane-related losses.

In the past, FEMA assigned case management funds to local governments or the program was executed through partnerships among government agencies. In Puerto Rico’s case, the federal agency decided for the first time that, rather than hand over the work to the local government, it would delegate the responsibility to nonprofit organizations, and allocated $70 million for this task.

When FEMA and the nine chosen nonprofits signed cooperative agreements to start the case management program in August 2018, many things were still left to do at Mercedes Milagros Peña’s home. FEMA had approved individual assistance funds  to repair and replace personal property damaged by the hurricane. But the $1,709 the agency had approved after almost a year of back-and-forth paperwork, denials and appeals, was significantly less than the $10,500 that a contractor had quoted to repair the house, which flooded after María’s winds ripped out the bedroom windows.

One afternoon in June 2019, sitting in the living room of her still disheveled home where flood marks were still visible, and that was furnished with a two-seater sofa — where she slept — and several appliances that she bought with the money that FEMA gave her, Peña admitted that she was exhausted, and that at times she lost hope of “living like regular people” again.

Peña, who had a monthly income of $224 and reported it to the federal government, had decided to appeal FEMA’s denial a second time. But in early 2019, she got a call from a woman who identified herself as a representative of the San Vicente de Paul organization who told Peña to stop submitting her claims to the US Government because she would give her the help she needed.

“When I was going to appeal [the denial of additional assistance from FEMA], and was going to get the papers that the lawyers said, the woman called me — from San Vicente de Paul, which is now providing aid — and she told me: ‘don’t appeal, we’re going to visit you’,” she said.

What Peña didn’t know when she got that call and ensuing visits to her home that ended in nothing was that the people who identified themselves as representing San Vicente de Paul were actually working for Disaster Services Corporation, one of nine organizations that got FEMA funding to execute the case management program. Their tasks were to help survivors gain access to legal, psychological or spiritual assistance and to any donation or government service available to repair hurricane damage.

Disaster Services Corporation is a Texas-based organization created by US-based philanthropic organization Society of St. Vincent de Paul, incorporated as an independent nonprofit in February 2017, seven months before Hurricanes Irma and María ripped through more than 870,000 occupied homes in Puerto Rico. Eighteen months later, in August 2018, FEMA approved a $11.6 million grant to Disaster Services Corporation to offer case management services in Puerto Rico. It was incorporated in Puerto Rico as a foreign corporation that same month.

According to the request for proposals that FEMA published for the Disaster Case Management Program, nonprofits with prior experience in case management and that had a presence on the island or connections with local organizations would be eligible for these grants.

“Proposals were received from 11 organizations — two of which were incomplete and therefore not considered — and the benefit or grant was initially awarded to the nine organizations that applied,” said Anthony Vargas, supervisor of the FEMA community services group in Puerto Rico, who is responsible for the program.

In its application, Disaster Services Corporation — one of the nine chosen organizations — proposed to offer case management services in 21 towns in Puerto Rico, where according to FEMA data, there were 209,696 people registered as Hurricane María victims and at least 10,484 of them would need services from 300 case managers, at a rate of one manager for every 35 “clients.”

Disaster Services Corporation, which does not have its own office, but instead provides as its address a co-working space in Irving, Texas, did not have a presence on the island either. It did have a recent affiliation with the local chapter of the Sociedad San Vicente de Paúl, a Catholic organization not linked to the church that does philanthropic work in Puerto Rico and that registered itself as a nonprofit in the Puerto Rico Department of State on Sept. 18, 2017, in the middle of Hurricanes Irma and María.

The San Vicente de Paúl Central Council in Puerto Rico and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the United States — which founded Disaster Services Corporation, with which it maintains a collaborative link — are independent entities, but related as a “Vincentian family,” the way in which organizations around the world that adhere to a philanthropic tradition of Catholic laymen founded in France in the 19th century and that are currently governed by an international council, recognize each other.

The president of the Central Council of Vincentians in Puerto Rico, William Rodríguez Maldonado, said his organization has been in Puerto Rico for more than a century and that his first contact with Disaster Services Corporation — which also uses the name St. Vincent de Paul — happened just after Hurricane Irma, which destroyed several Caribbean islands and caused significant damage in eastern Puerto Rico, two weeks before María arrived. At the time, they tried to coordinate the shipment of supplies from Disaster Services Corporation to Eastern Caribbean islands, but that never happened, Rodríguez Maldonado said.

Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo | Center for Investigative Journalism

Marilin Olea, a resident of the Valle Hill sector, in Canóvanas, partially repaired her roof and also her sister’s with building materials donated by the local organization San Vicente de Paúl de Puerto Rico. These repairs happened prior to the implementation of the case management program, which left some of her neighbors waiting for similar assistance.

After Hurricane María and its historic destruction in Puerto Rico, the chief executive officer of Disaster Services Corporation, Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, put Rodríguez Maldonado in contact with Team Rubicon, an organization of US military veterans, with which the Vincentians of Puerto Rico established an alliance to install 500 roofs, about 100 of them in the San Isidro neighborhood in Canóvanas, according to data that Rodríguez Maldonado provided.

So, San Vicente de Paúl was already a well-known organization in San Isidro.

That’s why, when other neighbors besides Mercedes Milagros Peña, heard that San Vicente de Paúl would take care of their needs, they believed that this time they would finally be able to get over the ordeal of paperwork and, in many cases, the absence of a safe roof, that they had been subjected to since Sept. 20, 2017.

That was what Daisy Morel de Peña hoped. For months, she had been interacting with a case manager from Disaster Services Corporation named Javier Otero. Morel de Peña said, in several interviews from June 2019 to February 2020, that Otero called and wrote multiple times to ask her how she was doing and to tell her he was trying to find a solution to her case. But, in early 2020, she stopped hearing from him, and Otero no longer returned her calls or text messages.

Morel de Peña lives with her granddaughter in a house at the entrance to the San Isidro neighborhood that she got through subsidized rent, with the help of the Puerto Rico Department of Housing. But she wants to return to her home down the road in the Villa Hugo II sector. She says it is the only community she knows, the only one in which she feels safe and that nothing will happen to her granddaughter, who is enrolled at a nearby elementary school.

Morel de Peña has knocked on the door of every agency and makes it a point to talk to every organization and community assistance entity representative that comes to the neighborhood, where 59% of the population reports incomes below the poverty line, according to data compiled by Patricia Noboa Ortega, a psychology professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey who, together with attorney Belinés Ramos Negrón, opened the community-based Psychological Legal Clinic to offer free and ongoing services for the residents of Las Villas.

Otero, who was impossible to get a hold of through the phone number and email he gave Morel de Peña in official documents, visited the house in Villa Hugo II where Morel de Peña lived before Hurricane María ripped off a wooden structure on the second level and flooded the first floor, which since then has often been inundated. Otero went to the home in April 2019 with another Disaster Services Corporation employee who inspected the structure.

These inspections, which occurred at the homes of several of the residents interviewed in San Isidro, raised hopes that they would finally get the assistance they needed to repair their dwellings. But as this investigation has proven, the inspections were instead a source of confusion and frustration, and not just for disaster survivors.

Foto por Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The homes of the Olea sisters, with their repaired roofs, stand in striking contrast to the landscape of destruction that can be observed in Las Villas, the common name ascribed to sectors Villa Hugo I, Villa Hugo II and Valle Hill in Canóvanas.

No resources available to solve pressing needs

As opposed to what the victims hoped and to what some workers believed at the beginning of the initiative, case management program funds — which jumped from the initial $70 million to $73 million — cannot be used for construction expenses. FEMA clearly prohibits it. The expectation of the FEMA-designed program is that when repairs are pending, nonprofit organizations and case managers will help the survivor in procuring both materials and labor.

But, according to Anthony Vargas, program supervisor at FEMA; the president of an organization that landed a case management grant, and to the leader of the Vincentians in Puerto Rico, who worked for Disaster Services Corporation, the program is only as good as the resources available.

And resources were lacking in Puerto Rico.

“It’s a nice and necessary program, but the problem is that it doesn’t go hand in hand, or, at least, in Puerto Rico, it didn’t keep up with the reality of the reconstruction process,” said José Pietri, president of the Sabana Grande Economic and Community Development Corp. (SACED, in Spanish). This community organization got an initial $1.4 million grant to launch the case management program, initially in six and then in eight municipalities in the southwestern part of the island. Ultimately, as a result of program extensions and the additional towns it served, his organization received more than $2 million in funds, he explained.

Pietri said that while the case management program was running its course, government reconstruction initiatives were on hold and the philanthropic aid that flowed in immediately after the hurricane had already stopped. So, case managers had no alternatives to give survivors and nowhere to seek help for them.

“I feel like we’ve done a lot of work and we’re wasting time because they still haven’t released a lot of the funding… Now the aid programs for the damages caused by Hurricane María and Irma are coming out, but now [that the case management program is over], with what, with whom will I be able to [continue helping]?,” said Pietri, referring to the fact that he will no longer have funds to hire case managers to help victims navigate the bureaucracy and access the funding to which they have a right.

The community leader, who began handling cases — unbeknownst to him that that’s what it was called — with a $43,308 allocation that his nonprofit got from the Unidos por Puerto Rico organization shortly after the hurricane, said he learned about the FEMA program at the invitation of the federal agency. Initially, FEMA estimated that there would be about 630 cases in the six municipalities where SACED would offer services, but a year after the program began, the Sabana Grande organization’s managers already had between 1,400 and 1,500 cases on their hands. When FEMA stopped adding new cases to the program in February, SACED had about 850 open cases left.

“For me, a closed case is a case in which we were able to fulfill the plan that we set out for ourselves. They [FEMA] also register the cases that were closed because of a lack of resources. The truth is that this is my greatest sadness and burden,” said Pietri.

Despite asking FEMA for access to documents related to this program, including audits or evaluations conducted to date, through an official request under the Freedom of Information Act, five months and multiple emails later, the agency has yet to release them.

According to the data compiled by the Disaster Case Management Program organizations in a database provided by FEMA and that the CPI reviewed, of the 24,648 cases reported as closed, 10,051 did so because it was possible to meet the goals established in the recovery plan, while 10,200 were closed partially fulfilled, and 3,397 were unfulfilled.

In other words, more than half — or 55% of the cases that were closed — did not fully comply with the recovery plan, according to data as of Aug. 17, 2020 included in the Coordinated Assistance Network, or CAN, an online platform developed by the American Red Cross and used by FEMA to centralize information for this program.

Of all the organizations that received grants for this program, Disaster Services Corporation performed the worst when analyzing recovery plans results for the cases it reported closed. According to the data collected in the CAN platform, only 25% of those cases complied with the recovery plan, 56% partially met their recovery plans, and 19% did not, which means that 75% of the 4,868 Disaster Services Corporation cases on record as of Aug. 17, 2020 did not fully meet recovery goals.

The data available in CAN shows that one organization had a worse track record than Disaster Services Corporation in this area. But The Facilitators-Camp Ironhorse, with only 19% of its cases closed having met recovery plan goals, was out of the case management program early after getting into a public dispute with FEMA over payments it was claiming from the federal agency.

The difficulty that Pietri had in getting resources in the southwestern area — where the disaster caused by the earthquakes compounded the problems in January of this year — is similar to the experience told by the president of the Vincentians of Puerto Rico, who worked as a resource coordinator Disaster Services Corporation in the case management program.

“When the real needs [in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María] were understood, Elizabeth Disco, who is the CEO of Disaster Services Corporation, contacted me and said: ‘if you support me, I’ll get involved’ [in the case management program], because they are in the United States. And I told her that there was no problem, ‘I’m here and I’ll support you.’ We had already worked in partnership with them for almost a year,” Rodríguez Maldonado said.

Attempts have been made to communicate with Disco-Shearer and her team to coordinate an interview, but the organization has not responded to emails or private messages sent through LinkedIn. The telephone number listed in their contact information, on the organization’s website and official documents, is that of a co-working site, where it has been impossible to reach them.

Great need, little coordination

Rodríguez Maldonado said the initial intention of Disaster Services Corporation was to handle cases beyond the 21 municipalities it ended up proposing to FEMA, but they reviewed the proposal before submitting it to work “more or less in line with the Vincentian presence” on the island.

“When I wrote out the list for Liz [Disco-Shearer], I included more or less the towns where the Vincentian family was present,” said Rodríguez Maldonado. FEMA agreed to allow Disaster Services Corporation to offer services in all of the towns it proposed, as it did with the other selected organizations, said Vargas, the FEMA employee who oversaw the program locally.

However, the way in which Disaster Services Corporation implemented the program appears to distance itself from the presence of Vincentians in the areas that FEMA assigned to them. To handle cases in half of the 21 towns it requested and was assigned, Disaster Services Corporation subcontracted PVMA Global, a Houston, Texas-based consulting firm that, following the agreement, registered itself in Puerto Rico as a for-profit corporation on Oct. 11, 2018, and opened an office in Dorado.

In addition, the recruitment of those who worked as case managers and construction cost analysts wasn’t thorough, a person who participated in the process, and who asked not to be identified by name for fear of reprisals, said.

Among those who worked as case managers for Disaster Services Corporation — a position that exists because, in designing the program, FEMA recognizes the emotional and psychological challenge survivors face as they try to improve their living conditions — were people with experience in sales, human resources, security, clerical, education, and a social worker, according to LinkedIn profiles of at least 10 of these employees.

“They had us meet at the Sheraton [Hotel] at the [San Juan] Convention Center and they told us: ‘You’ve been chosen and are going with St. Vincent de Paul.’ I thought I was there for an interview. But they welcomed us and told us: ‘you’re the ones who have been selected’,” said the source, who prior to that had only sent a job application and it was then when they had their initial contact with staff from Disaster Services Corporation, to which everyone in the case management program referred to as St. Vincent de Paul.

The source added that some of the people hired understood that they would be working with Disaster Services Corporation, but they later learned it was actually with PVMA, and that both corporations shifted staff at least once during the extent of the program.

This person, who mostly worked on cases in the eastern region, expressed frustration similar to Pietri’s, the Sabana Grande community leader in the southeast, and that the residents of Villa Hugo and Valle Hill –in the northeast– also experienced as they waited for workers who they identified as being from San Vicente de Paúl to come back with materials or labor to help them repair their houses.

The source said that workers from Disaster Services Corporation and PVMA  hoped to help disaster survivors whose homes were still damaged by the hurricane to improve their living conditions. But they soon realized that, without available resources, there was little they could do.

“At first, they [the Disaster Services Corporation representatives] told us that the materials were going to be provided to us. Then, over time … like in February (2019), they began to tell us that the case managers had to identify the sources for the materials. That the case managers had to look for the windows — in the case of windows — the tiles, the sealants, in hardware stores. That they had to be donated to them to be able to deliver the material. Because, at the beginning, another organization was going to handle the labor, but that never happened,” said the source.

Difficulties meeting the expectations that were created among survivors and employees frustrated Rodríguez Maldonado, who feared these problems would tarnish his organization’s years of work.

“It was always my concern: the problem is that San Vicente de Paúl is involved, and San Vicente de Paúl in Puerto Rico is one thing and San Vicente de Paúl in the United States is another, and we’re the ones seen in a negative light (in Puerto Rico)… We had nothing to do with case management. What we were doing was trying to deal with the repairs and providing the resources we could,” he said.

Rodríguez Maldonado said he and his partners did in fact distribute materials and that he coordinated groups of volunteers to do the repairs, but admitted that there were not enough resources to address all of the cases for which they were responsible. The building materials Rodríguez Maldonado distributed were not provided by Disaster Services Corporation, but instead he got them through another government program, also from FEMA, known as VALOR, the acronym for Voluntary Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair.

The program called for participating nonprofit organizations to submit purchase orders for construction materials to FEMA to help with recovery, and the federal agency ordered and paid for the merchandise requested at a hardware store with public funds. In the case of Puerto Rico, those orders were only processed through local hardware store chain National.

“When National finally has everything available from that order, they call FEMA and then the representative from VALOR calls me to do the inspection, and then they deliver the materials. Initially, I had to pick it up or pay [for the delivery]. Then, mid-way through the program, they saw our need, and they [FEMA] then paid for the delivery of the materials,” Rodríguez Maldonado said in an interview at the supplies warehouse that he established in Vega Alta after Hurricane María.

Rodríguez Maldonado said the materials he got through VALOR, paid for with FEMA funds, were not only to address the cases assigned to Disaster Services Corporation and PVMA, but also for those of other organizations that participated in the case management program, like Family Endeavors, a San Antonio, Texas-based entity known simply as Endeavors, which landed an initial $29.5 million grant to handle cases in 49 towns in Puerto Rico. The materials were also to be split with the Salvation Army, which was assigned 39 municipalities and a  $2.2 million grant, and which stood out in the program because it delivered items such as stoves and refrigerators.

“We tried to find the resources. Honestly, there were no resources from organizations. There were times of significant emergency resources, and they did move, but then things got tighter. Then, there was nothing. Not even the volunteers showed up at times. It became harder for us. We had to resort to using funds to pay contractors to finish jobs, and that had not been considered, we hadn’t expected it. But when faced with the situation, we had to act on it,” he said.

Emails were sent to the nine organizations that had received case management program grants to ask about the terms of their proposals and agreements with FEMA and how they used the public funds they received. Only SACED, an organization based in Sabana Grande, granted an interview. Of the rest, the majority did not respond and those that did, refused to send information or referred the matter to FEMA, which has not yet complied with a similar petition that, at the request of the agency, was processed through FOIA.

An interview was also requested from PVMA, but one of its officers in Puerto Rico, Manuel Perfecto, said that any information on the case management program should be provided by Disaster Services Corporation, which was the entity that received the public grant.

According to the guidelines established by FEMA in its request for proposals for the Disaster Case Management Program, participating organizations were required to submit monthly reports on their operations and finances, and were also visited by agency staff from time to time to validate program objectives, data collected and complications that could have come up.

FEMA also provided templates to break down work plans and budget reports, in addition to the platform where managers, construction cost analysts, and supervisors could submit or contrast information on cases that all of the organizations worked on, and to which federal employees in charge of this program have access.

But these working documents did not prevent that work be duplicated or that employees from two different organizations intervened in the same case, without warranting a positive resolution, according to statements from Rodríguez Maldonado, the anonymous source who worked for Disaster Services Corporation, and from the experience from a couple of neighbors from Valle Hill.

Rodríguez Maldonado’s official position in Disaster Services Corporation’s case management program was that of resource coordinator, for which he earned $39,900 annually. However, as part of his day-to-day duties, he not only sought out materials and volunteers to carry out repairs, but also inspected houses. For that type of work, Disaster Services Corporation and PVMA were assumed to have cost analysis personnel, earning more than $30,000 a year.

Disaster Services Corporation and PVMA’s cost analysts, who were not necessarily professional builders or appraisers, would inspect the damage to the houses using an application called Xactimate, where they wrote down the materials that were needed for the construction or repair and used it to prepare the estimate. But Rodríguez Maldonado, who is a retired businessman, insisted that the work was often incomplete, so he began to visit the houses to validate that the list of materials they sent him included everything he had to get.

“I would take their analysis with me to confirm that it was correct. I had to, not because they weren’t good, but they worked with a computer and downloaded the report from the computer. But the computer doesn’t perform the analysis aspect of the report, which is to get under the house and see what you need to rebuild. A person has to do that. And there was no analysis done for that,” said Rodríguez Maldonado, adding he learned about what it takes to repair houses when he collaborated with Team Rubicon to rebuild some 500 roofs.

Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo | Center for Investigative Journalism

Weeks after Hurricane María, a Chilean nonprofit called Techo (Roof) came to Puerto Rico to build these temporary structures, consisting of one room without an electrical connection and plumbing, as an emergency solution for those who lost their homes. Due to a lack of options, some neighbors, like Jovino Amado Calderón, have adapted these dwellings to make them their permanent home.

Money flows, but not the results

The source who worked in the eastern part of the island confirmed that some of the inspection reports were incomplete and stressed that there were other complications to execute the program, for example, that case managers had problems following up on some of the cases because they lost contact with the homeowner or because new case referrals were sometimes submitted with incomplete or generic addresses.

The way the program is designed calls for the case manager to first meet with the person in need of assistance and for them to develop the recovery plan together. So, it is assumed that inspectors would only arrive at a home after initial contact between the survivor and the case manager, but it happened more than once that, on the day of an inspection, Disaster Services Corporation and PVMA workers spent hours unsuccessfully searching for a survivor’s home.

Or, upon getting to where they would work that day, they would run into employees from another organization working in that same municipality, as was the case with Rodríguez Maldonado in a remote area of the mountainous town of Corozal.

Ramón Páez and Sol Reyes, from Valle Hill in Canóvanas, kept in contact with Disaster Services Corporation staff and waited long months, believing that the organization would provide materials so that he, a construction worker, could repair part of the house damaged by wind and flooding.

But what Páez got instead in late October 2019, more than a year after the program began, was a call from a worker at Endeavors, one of the FEMA-funded organizations, to let him know where he could buy the construction materials he needed.

Páez said he got so upset that he told the case manager he knew where to buy construction materials, because that is what he does for a living. That was not his problem, he said. His problem was that he did not have the money to buy them. The result of his argument with the case manager came the next day in the form of a letter: “Case closure notice,” it said, citing as the reason that “the client has withdrawn the request for services.”

The setbacks that built up for case management workers, coupled with the lack of access to resources to address the most basic needs of the people they were visiting, became frustrating, and made them wonder what the program was really created for, the employee who spoke with the CPI and asked that his name or position not be published for fear of being identified, said.

“I saw so many modest people who said: ‘what I want for them is to put up the roof, the wood,’ ‘what I want is to remove the tarp and not get wet,’ and these people had no windows, had other significant damages,” the source recounted about their experiences almost two years after the hurricane.

“But help never arrived and they [Disaster Services Corporation and PVMA] always said that FEMA put up restrictions or other things,” the source said. “When we sometimes asked if there were funds available [for repairs], they told us: ‘no, we have to get that.’ And one wonders: ‘Okay, were the funds assigned just to hire us, and there’s no reconstruction?”

This investigation was possible thanks to the support of the Abrams Foundation and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, which funded the reporter’s work as an Abrams Nieman Fellow for Local Investigative Journalism.

Journalist's Biography

Related Stories