Hurricane Fiona’s first gusts were barely blowing when dozens of mayors had to improvise solutions. When they arrived at the locations that the government of Puerto Rico certified as shelters, they found they had no water tanks or power generators. At that time, a copy of Act 88 sat on a desk. This law, since April 2018, requires the Department of Public Security (DSP, in Spanish) to draft the by-laws to guarantee that all shelters have alternate sources for water and electricity services. This never happened.
Since Friday, September 16, before Hurricane Fiona struck, mayors including Comerío’s Josean Santiago, publicly warned that the certified shelters did not have alternative sources of power for when electricity service failed, and some did not have water tanks or showers either. Later, the mayor of Toa Baja, Bernardo Márquez García, also announced the need for a power generator and showers for one of the shelters that was opened in his municipality.
As the impact of the hurricane was imminent, Guánica residents foreseeing the damage that the winds or rains could cause in their homes went to the María McDougall School, designated as a shelter by the Department of Housing (DV, in Spanish). When the group grew, Mayor Ismael Rodríguez Ramos decided to open a second shelter at the Agripina Seda School, which did have a generator and a water tank, unlike the McDougall School, and which the DV had also designated as a shelter.
“When we moved there, there was no one from the Department of Education to turn on the generator. We called Education but no one showed up,” he said. Rodríguez Ramos had no choice but to move those seeking shelter during the emergency, to the McDougall School and “had to install the generator and right now [two days after the hurricane passed] we are also installing a water tank,” said Rodríguez Ramos.
The Agripina Seda School was destroyed after the 2020 earthquakes. After an investment of $7.5 million in 2021, the students returned to the school in January in a modular steel and aluminum structure that Governor Pedro Pierluisi himself described as “spectacular, nice and safe.” However, inadequate to provide the best services to those seeking shelter from Fiona.
The average age of people sheltered at the María McDougall School fluctuated between 60 and 80 years old, staff at the school told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish), who also pointed out the lack of protocols and effective monitoring in case someone needed medical assistance or treatment during the emergency. The claim came up after an older adult who arrived at the shelter with an open wound.
A pregnant woman with two small children, who sought services at the school after her house lost the roof, also arrived at this shelter that had no water and electricity. This school was fully open although it has a “partially suitable” structure after the earthquakes, as the engineers who inspected it stated. There were no restricted areas or warnings about the risks to which their occupants were exposed.
Guánica was not the only municipality in the South that faced problems with the schools certified as shelters. More than half, or 14, of the 27 shelters identified by the DV at ground zero of the 2020 earthquakes, in southern Puerto Rico, were public schools. Eight of those 14 schools that on paper were ready or certified as shelters did not have power generators, according to what the CPI verified in the documents that the DV provided.
In Peñuelas, three of the municipality’s seven schools are certified as shelters but none have power generators. At the Daniel Webster School, the water tank for the cafeteria has not worked since the earthquakes, something that has been reported to the DE on at least three occasions without getting a response or solution, the school’s director, Joel Castro, told the CPI.
Guayanilla could be considered an exception since the only school identified as a shelter, Gloria M. Borrero, has a generator and a water tank. In contrast, the municipality of Salinas, the town most affected by Fiona, had four shelters, all public schools. According to the DV, only the Carlos Colón Burgos School had a generator.
When Housing was told about the deficiencies found in these temporary shelters, the agency only said that an evaluation committee “certifies the shelters and that any deficiency found is notified to the owners of the school buildings (Department of Education or the Public Buildings Authority), which are responsible for correcting them. Opening the shelters is in the hands of the municipalities.”
Housing also pointed out that when someone arrives at a shelter, medical information is requested and that allegedly “the medical needs of those who sought shelter are coordinated with the Department of Health to provide services.”
Contrary to what the CPI observed in several municipalities and a week after Hurricane Fiona, the DV stated that “when opening a shelter, priority is always given to the location that is listed as having a generator or water tank.”
“Each agency of the evaluation committee submits to the Bureau for Emergency and Disaster Management (NMEAD, in Spanish) the documentation that supports the decision to include the facility as an available shelter. At the time of the emergency, it is the municipality that makes the decision to open the shelter,” according to Housing’s statement.
The CPI confirmed the lack of basic services, including medical, in shelters in the southern, western, and northern regions. In fact, during a press conference last Friday, the Secretary of State himself, Omar Marrero Díaz, said he had to personally supervise the delivery of a generator at the José Robles Otero School in Toa Baja. The Secretary of State said, “shelters must be in the best possible condition, complying with the requirements to ensure that if bedridden patients or a particularly vulnerable population arrive, they are attended to.”
“As soon as I got there, the mayor [Márquez García] told me immediately that a generator was needed [in the shelter], there was a bedridden patient, there were some specific needs, which made it not a luxury but an urgent need that this be addressed,” Marrero Díaz said. “I personally followed up to make sure that generator got to that school, and it did,” he added.
The Secretary of State also explained that this time the government of Puerto Rico is authorized to use federal funds for temporary housing under the category of emergency protection measures after President Joe Biden’s disaster declaration. This is category B of the Public Assistance program. In addition to the shelters, with these funds it is possible to reach an agreement with hotels, small inns, and other properties to provide temporary housing.
In Arecibo, in the northern coast, for example, only one shelter was opened in the urban area, at the María Cadilla de Martínez School, and another in the rural area, in the Second Unit of the Sabana Hoyos sector, which is the largest in Puerto Rico and is the farthest from the town’s urban center. According to the DV’s list, the Sabana Hoyos school was the only one that had a power generator.
Siblings Gladys and Norberto Nieves, who left the Reparto Martell complex in Arecibo when several feet of water had already gotten into their house, found the María Cadilla de Martínez School in the dark and without water service, so hygiene in the bathrooms was not the most adequate. “When I asked about our rights as shelter occupants, they got upset. There was no water or electricity. There was food and snacks,” Gladys said.
Mayors Association President and Villaba Mayor, Luis Javier Hernández, confirmed that the problems with the schools identified as shelters was the same for the island’s central region towns. “I went to the shelter of the [Cristina Martínez] Villalba Vocational High School, which is announced as a certified shelter every year. So, we believe that ‘certified’ means that [the school] works [as a shelter], that it has everything to address an emergency: generators, water tank, eating areas, areas for bedridden people, etc. When I got to the shelter the generator was not working,” he claimed, underlining the government’s lack of interagency coordination.
The Cristina Martínez School appears on the DV’s list and specifies that it does not have a generator. Meanwhile, the Silvia Torres School, the other facility identified as a shelter in Villalba, is listed as not having the necessary equipment either. Hernández said he did not even get word from the agencies at the central level and that, like Guánica, he had to respond during the hurricane.
“Last year I told the Secretary [of Education] to take a good look at [the schools]. When they finally made the list of certified shelters, they told me the generator was working and they checked it out. Well, no, we had to ask for an emergency generator and connect it in the middle of the hurricane so that the people there would have electricity,” he said at a press conference held by the Mayors Association last Wednesday in Ponce.
In the island’s central region, the CPI visited the Bernardo González Colón School, in Utuado, one day after Hurricane Fiona. The facility had no electricity, poor lighting, and little security. It had drinking water at least.
Likewise, in Cabo Rojo, on the southwestern coast through which Hurricane Fiona entered and exited, Mayor Jorge Morales Wiscovitch confirmed that the Monserrate de León Irizarry High School, in Boquerón, did not have a power generator to comfort, security and the possibility of connecting medical aid devices.
“We took steps, but the storm hit us, and they couldn’t do anything about it,” Morales Wiscovitch said. “That school has always been used as a shelter without a generator.” According to the municipal executive, the people who went to the shelter refused to move to another school, preferring to remain in their community.
When the CPI asked which was the government entity in charge of the power generators, the mayor said the Public Buildings Authority (PBA) because it is responsible for providing maintenance to public facilities, a task that is shared with the Public Schools Improvement Office (OMEP, in Spanish). In addition, Act 88 imposes on Housing and Education the duty that shelter schools have water tanks and alternate sources of energy. Morales Wiscovitch added that, during an emergency, NMEAD is also responsible for taking care of this so that it does not happen again.
In Hormigueros, the shelter at the Bobby Cruz Convention Center had food, electricity, medical services, and bathrooms accessible to the shelter seekers, as the CPI confirmed when it visited the facility four days after Fiona passed. There were still 48 people sheltered. The municipal employee in charge of the shelters, David Vázquez Ortiz, explained that the municipality used the Valle Hermoso Arriba community center and the convention center as shelters because the Segundo Ruiz Belvis High School did not have a water tank or power generator.
“The only [shelters] that we have operating are our community centers, which are municipal facilities since the central government schools are not in condition,” said Vázquez Ortiz. The municipality owns the power generator and is responsible for the fuel, he said. They had not had the need to use the water tank, although they had one. The municipality also paid to provide those in the shelter with the services of a doctor and two nurses, Vázquez Ortiz said. Meanwhile, their breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks are coordinated with the School Food Authority of the Department of Education.
Vázquez Ortiz said the daily tasks in the shelter are carried out by municipal employees and the staff of JA Machuca & Associates, a company that the Public Housing Administration (AVP, in Spanish) hired to run the shelter. The municipal employee said, at a certain time of the day, the AVP staff also assists them.
What Act 88 of 2018 Says
The responsibility for providing basic services in emergency shelters is shared between the Department of Housing (DV) and the Department of Education, according to the Act presented by former Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and former Senators Henry Newmann and Luis Daniel Muñiz Cortes. The “Service Provision Guarantee Act” was created to mitigate the effects of a catastrophic event.
The statute compels Housing and Education to provide a water tank in the shelters with enough supply for at least five days, as well as guaranteed energy service through an alternate source. The duty of overseeing compliance falls to the Municipal Emergency and Disaster Management Office (ONMEAD, in Spanish).
More than four years after Act 88’s approval, the DSP told the CPI that “they were working” on the bylaws. No official from that agency answered the CPI’s request for an interview to explain why there are no bylaws. Likewise, the CPI contacted Senator Rivera Schatz, as the author of the project, to evaluate the result of the measure, but the elected official stated that he was not “interested in speaking” with this journalistic organization.
This law was approved in response to the problems that Puerto Rico faced with medical services and facilities to house those seeking shelter after Hurricane María made landfall in 2017. However, when the CPI asked the DV to list the laws that regulate shelters in Puerto Rico, the agency did not mention Act 88 of 2018.
In fact, Housing Secretary William Rodríguez said a week before Fiona arrived that “the shelters don’t necessarily have to have a power plant,” since it is not an essential requirement. “Our goal is, eventually, that all the shelters have their power plant and their water tanks,” he assured, although this is not the reality of the 365 certified shelters.
The initial inspection list of these emergency shelters — according to the Guide for the Operation of Emergency Shelters revised in June 2020 — also does not consider the obligation to have a water tank and an alternate source of energy imposed by Act 88.
The AVP has 11 contracts in effect until June 2023 with the same number of companies to operate and manage the shelters throughout the island. Contractors charge $10 per day per shelter occupant. In addition, they receive $250 for each shelter that is required to open and other reimbursements for expenses incurred related to the operation. In total, contractors may invoice up to a maximum of $150,000 per year, of which $50,000 may be advanced to cover operating expenses to set up and operate shelters.
“All shelter management contracts are valid for one fiscal year, since emergencies can occur at any time of the year,” said the DV. The agency also explained that the DV and the AVP oversee shelter administrators, “through the Security and Emergency interagency coordinator.”
This official’s responsibilities include coordinating with the Shelter Evaluation Committee — along with staff from several agencies — the annual inspections of the facilities that will be used as shelters in cases of emergencies and validating and certifying that the shelters meet the parameters and requirements established to be used in case of emergencies.
Luis Joel Méndez González, Cristina del Mar Quiles and Vanessa Colón Almenas contributed to this story.
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