Six weeks after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans still waiting for help from Fema

Federal agency still hobbled by lack of electricity and reliable cell and internet service – stopping Puerto Ricans from getting the help they desperately need

Online aid forms that can’t be filled out because there’s no internet. Follow-up calls missed because cellphones can’t get a signal. Federal officials who can’t speak Spanish and leave families waiting for weeks.

More than six weeks after Hurricane Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) is still hobbled by the lack of electricity and reliable cell and internet service – stopping Puerto Ricans from accessing assistance they desperately need.

“I feel like it’s constant begging, I’m a professional woman and now I’m crawling, just crawling for help,” said Luz Nereida Montero, a former school administrator who lives in the town of Utuado, a community perched in the mountains that rise in the centre of the island.

To apply for federal aid, residents must fill out a form online or call a telephone number – but no one has access to the internet or phone in Utuado. Fema has gone back to paper and pencil in Puerto Rico to remedy this, but residents said the first federal representative only showed up in Utuado last week, 42 days after Maria.

Before Fema arrived, Nereida Montero traveled several hours to another town to get in touch with her daughter-in-law in Michigan to fill out the online form. She’s still unsure when Fema will show up to inspect her house to approve the assistance money. And she has another common problem in that she’s not sure how the agency will contact her either, given her complete lack of communications.

Maybe they’ll send a letter to her ruined house. For now, she’s living with her ex-husband, surviving on crackers and cookies supplied by the church.

In several different towns, people reported that Fema staff often did not speak Spanish, either in person or during long waits on the phone. Federal employees sent to the island have struggled in the mountains, often getting lost and asking for directions or left stymied by impassable roads. A key bridge near Utuado completely collapsed, prompting residents to erect a rudimentary zip line in order to receive food and water over the muddy river.

Fema would be forgiven for feeling a little punch-drunk. For the first time in 166 years of records two category four hurricanes made landfall on the continental US in the same season, with Harvey dumping 25 trillion gallons of water in just a few days in Texas, followed by Irma ripping up the spine of Florida.

Then came Maria on 20 September, pummeling Puerto Rico with winds of up to 154mph and damaging or wiping out 230,000 homes. The whole island was left without power and the the lack of drinkable water drove some people to rip the seals off wells that were condemned due to toxic pollution.

The Guardian asked Fema if its response to Maria has been slow or unwieldy, prompting the agency to forcefully reject the suggestion.

“Are you aware of Harvey? Of Irma? Are you aware of the wildfires in California? To cover this story properly you have to get that right,” a Fema spokesman told the Guardian.

“It’s been a challenging time. It’s an island surrounded by water 1,000 miles from Florida. We’ve moved as quick as we can. You seem stuck on slow. It’s not slow.”

Fema has extended the deadline for disaster relief to 120 days, easing a looming deadline for applications that was previously due on 20 November. The agency said it has registered more than 1 million people for assistance, approving $125m in payments so far.

It insists it has a presence in each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities and those like Utuado that were hard to reach have received helicopter-borne supply drops. Local people have been hired to help deal with Spanish speakers on the phone, although the inspections are largely done by contractors.

“Many places are still not accessible, but we are finding creative and innovative ways to reach people,” said the Fema spokesman. “People are staying with relatives, or in hotels, so we reach out by email or through family members. It might take a bit longer.”

Government bureaucracy has sometimes jarred with traditional practices in places like Utuado, which is surrounded by peaks covered in the broken bones of flattened trees. Like many agriculture-based communities – coffee is grown in the hills here – land is often divided up informally within families. Applications for aid that demand deeds and other property verification are met with puzzlement. An emergency legal aid fund has been set up to bridge the gap.

“The people who come from the US don’t know our idiosyncrasies, or even our rights or our laws,” said Carmen Villaneuva Castro, a community leader in San Juan who has led efforts to provide aid to those outside the metropolis. “Sometimes they don’t know words in Spanish. It’s like they don’t know our reality.”

Electricity output is still 40% below normal levels and around 20% of Puerto Ricans still don’t have water. The total number of deaths is less clear – the official tally stands at about 55 but Carmin Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, has said the actual total is much higher, most likely in the hundreds.

Meanwhile, San Juan is staggering back towards normalcy – vegetation is now on the previously bare trees, the lines at gas stations have dissipated and mobile phone coverage is creeping back. But the recovery is much slower in rural areas and there’s hefty cynicism aimed at both Fema – “Fema es el problema” is stamped into bollards along several main streets – and at the debt-ridden Puerto Rican government and municipalities that are supposed to direct the aid that Fema provides.

“It’s been 43 days and it should be getting better, but it’s not,” said Yulixa Paredes, another Utuado resident who hasn’t been to work since 4ft of water was introduced to her office. “People are getting desperate now. There’s not much food. There’s still not much gas. There’s no water, even in the supermarket.”

The delays have surprised some aid workers who are still trying to administer basics such as food, water and shelter. At the Coliseo Roberto Clemente, a venue for basketball and gymnastics turned into an aid processing centre, “hope” packages are being sent out filled with rice, raisins and, to help purify putrid water, chlorine tablets.

“I was in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and it seemed like there was a bigger US government presence then than there is here now,” said David Darg, vice-president of international operations at Operation Blessing, a humanitarian organization operating from Coliseo Roberto Clemente. “It has surprised me that there are still huge gaps that need to be filled.”


Oliver Milman in Utuado

The GuardianTramp

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