Colorful houses line the winding streets of the San Isidro neighborhood of Canóvanas, Puerto Rico, some missing walls or windows, others with roofs that are partially caved in. In late summer, the fruit trees are weighted with passionfruit, starfruit, and bananas, alongside intermittent piles of bricks and dilapidated vehicles. Driving through his neighborhood, Luis Colón points out what recovery looks like two years after Hurricane Maria.
Colón, a member of the local community board, stops by the home of 38-year-old Melissa Velázquez and her four kids. Her roof leaks every time it rains, but she was denied assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, because, like most of her neighbors and about half the population of Puerto Rico, she does not have a formal title for her property.
Nearby, Daisy Dolores Morel’s home is still inundated with an inch of fetid water the color of pea soup. Morel was denied aid after Maria in part because she had previously accepted funds from FEMA. The agency often conditions recovery money on the purchase of flood insurance; those who can’t afford it are penalized when the next storm hits.
Colón’s tour pauses to take in the view from the limestone hills overlooking San Isidro. A sea of grass blankets one side of the neighborhood and numerous blue tarps cover the rooftops below. Like many of Puerto Rico’s most impoverished communities, San Isidro was built informally on the island’s coastal plains in response to a housing crisis. Homes were constructed without permits, land titles, or urban planners on a public wetland so environmentally precarious that for years federal officials prevented Puerto Rico from even providing public utilities like drinking water in the area.
Most of the neighborhood’s residents meet the poverty threshold, many are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and some are undocumented. Located in a flood zone at the heart of the Atlantic hurricane belt, San Isidro is one of the most vulnerable communities in the world to the intensifying climate crisis.
Now, the island is set to receive a new round of relief funding intended for low-income residents whose homes remain in a state of disrepair. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s R3 program stands for Repair, Reconstruction, and Relocation, but for much of San Isidro, the first two R’s are unlikely to apply. Instead, the only option for relief will be to relocate. That’s because the HUD funds come attached to a new FEMA flood map that designates more than 250,000 homes across Puerto Rico as virtually ineligible for reconstruction because of their susceptibility to flooding. Another portion of the HUD money will go to flood mitigation, but those funds won’t be available until long after relocations have begun. And for those unable to prove they own their homes, there may be no help offered at all.
The need to reduce the vulnerability of people living in flood zones is undeniable. But for Puerto Ricans whose only reliable resource during Maria was their community, relocating select neighbors, one by one, to different parts of the island may only serve to deepen deadly isolation during the future storms that will inevitably come. Determining how to justly relocate low-income neighborhoods in flood zones, and who will benefit after they leave, are among the most pressing climate justice questions of our time.
Legal advocates and community organizers across Puerto Rico are sounding alarm bells that the relocation plan provides ample opportunities for developers and politicians to clear away impoverished communities that stand in the way of valuable land or political ambitions.
How to justly relocate low-income neighborhoods in flood zones, and who will benefit after they leave, are among the most pressing climate justice questions of our time.
No corresponding restrictions on construction will apply to private developers interested in flood-prone territory. In fact, the Puerto Rican government’s action plan asserts that some of the billions of dollars in recovery funds will be used to promote “opportunity zones.” The zones were created via Republicans’ December 2017 tax overhaul and offer tax breaks for developers building in census tracts that contain high levels of poverty. A whopping 98 percent of Puerto Rico has been designated as opportunity zones, compared to 12 percent of all U.S. census tracts. Where the opportunity zones overlap with flood zones, the government may provide subsidies for development in the same types of environments it denies reconstruction funding.
“When you get deeper in terms of public policy and deeper in terms of the details in the action plan, and you put them in context with FEMA’s new maps of flooding and the context of the opportunity zones, you start to see that this is not for the people of Puerto Rico but instead about using the crisis after Maria to create a reorganization of the territory,” said Roberto Thomas, director of the Jobos Bay Eco-Development Initiative, which has been working with hurricane-impacted communities on the southern coast. “They’re trying to get a lot of communities displaced because they think they live in a place that can be an opportunity for other projects like tourism.”
Colón, too, is deeply cynical about the relocation program. He’s seen developments built on the wetlands seemingly with ease, such as a nearby Walmart. But his community has always been treated as a thorn in the side of local politicians. “What they want is to weaken the community so that they can throw it out later,” Colón said. “We’re fighting because if the funds are being released, we want them to truly help those who need it.”
Cycle of Abandonment
For months, President Donald Trump has repeatedly stated, incorrectly, that Puerto Rico has received $92 billion in relief funding. In reality, about $49 billion has been approved for the island’s recovery, and only $20 billion has been disbursed. The bulk of the recovery funds that remain, about $20 billion, will be distributed through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program.
Those funds represent the “next step in the rebirth of the island,” according to the Puerto Rican government’s action plan, meant not only to rehabilitate the thousands of homes still stuck with FEMA’s blue tarps for roofs but also to stimulate economic growth, reduce emigration, transform the energy system, and protect against future storms.
Puerto Rico, along with every nation on the globe, will indeed require a kind of rebirth as the climate crisis deepens. Under the best-case scenario, if humans reach peak CO2 emissions mid-century, the seas around Puerto Rico will rise 1 to 2 feet by 2100, impacting 8,000 structures, according to the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment in 2018. Under a worst-case scenario, where emissions continue to rise, seas could rise 9 to 11 feet. A study in Geophysical Research Letters found that the amount of rain dumped by Maria was five times more likely to occur under the fossil fuel-altered climate conditions of 2017 than it was in 1950. Warmer seawater will fuel increasingly frequent Category 4 and 5 hurricanes as the years go on.
Rather than usher in a just transformation of the island, the plans for the funds in Puerto Rico seem likely to replicate a pattern of profiteering that is pushing portions of the island further and further behind.
The plan was authored by an administration so corrupt and incompetent that in July, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans went out into the streets to eject the island’s governor, Ricky Rosselló. Protests exploded after the local Center for Investigative Journalism released Telegram messages between Rosselló and an inner circle of government advisers and associates, revealing the private interests that governed the island. Most galvanizing was a text from Rosselló’s then-chief financial officer, who said they should feed the cadavers of those killed during Maria to their critics.
As the streets filled with demonstrators, Rosselló’s government was in the midst of finalizing its guidelines for $775 million in Repair, Reconstruction, and Relocation funding. The program’s launch was among Rosselló’s final actions before he stepped down.
The organization Ayuda Legal provided assistance to communities navigating the byzantine recovery process after Hurricane Maria hit. Its lawyers have since become key advocates for holding the government accountable to the needs of the most devastated parts of the island.
“Given the current situation that the country is facing, of corruption and mismanagement of federal funds, there is a unanimous concern across the island that the R3 program is going to be another abusive scheme like the others that we have experienced since hurricanes Irma and María,” the organization said in a blog post shortly after the rules’ release. “Currently, the policy of the action plan and R3 program lends itself to displacement and discrimination toward families that are in risk zones or that don’t have titles.”
Photos: Christopher Gregory for The Intercept
While the R3 program covers repairs for minor damage in flood and landslide zones, it does not offer money for reconstruction of homes still “substantially” destroyed, a threshold that a large proportion of San Isidro would meet, according to lawyers with Ayuda Legal. Those living in homes with extensive damage may instead be offered a voucher to relocate, of an amount equivalent to their home’s value. If they can’t find a new home, the government will build one, outside of any flood zone, based on a series of approved design models.
Approvals for R3 aid will be based in part on a FEMA inspection process that was widely criticized for being slapdash. According to Ayuda Legal attorney Verónica González-Rodriguez, some contractors were paid based on how many homes they could inspect in a day, some didn’t even enter the homes, and others spoke no Spanish. Neighbors with nearly identical circumstances ended up with vastly different results.
“If the inspections were flawed, then the CDBG funds are also flawed,” explained Ariadna Godreau-Aubert, Ayuda Legal’s executive director.
Four percent of Puerto Rico’s population has already abandoned the island since 2017.
Demand for assistance is likely to far outweigh the supply. So even in flood-zone communities, only a select fraction will be offered money to relocate. In the end, as Godreau-Aubert put it, “It’s a relocation plan that is not only inadequate but is no plan at all.”
Without adequate aid, some of those who flee seeking safety from storms never return. As communities depopulate, services like schools and courts are eliminated, leading to a larger exodus. Four percent of Puerto Rico’s population has already abandoned the island since 2017. Puerto Rico’s relocation plan has potential to accelerate the process, leaving both those who stay and those who go a little more isolated.
Photos: Christopher Gregory for The Intercept
It’s aging adults like Ángel Luis Román Martínez who most worry Colón. The 79-year-old had to be rescued by the Red Cross after he weathered Maria inside his wooden house. From his living room, a blue tarp peeks through the holes that remain in his roof. His floorboards sag, and whenever it rains, everything is damp. But in San Isidro, at least there are people who look out for him.
When he returned home after the storm, Román Martínez fixed up the place with the help of a neighbor. As for FEMA, “They put on the tarp here, nothing else,” Colón explained. The last time Román Martínez met with the agency, they gave him a flyer that said “R3.”
Floodplains or Opportunity Zones
Already, the R3 program has a few clear winners. Four companies have been awarded multimillion-dollar contracts to administer the program, but all have records that raise red flags.
AECOM is a multinational corporation based in Los Angeles that specializes in engineering services. According to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism, one of AECOM’s lobbyists until very recently was Rosselló’s former campaign manager Elías Sánchez. Sánchez was involved in the infamous Telegram chat and reportedly remained one of the most powerful figures in the Roselló government even after he’d moved from a government position back to the private sector. He’s reportedly being investigated by the FBI for influence-peddling.
Properties once determined too vulnerable for rehabilitation could become newly valuable only after residents have been pushed out.
Alliance for the Recovery of Puerto Rico, which was only registered as a company in July 2018, is part of the holding corporation that managed an earlier Maria recovery program steeped in controversy for spending homeowners’ awards on markups, overhead, and middlemen rather than repairs. ICF Incorporated ran the reviled Road Home program in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and was fined $1 million by the Louisiana Recovery Authority for failing to meet the program’s goals. And Innovative Emergency Management was hired by FEMA in 2004 to design a hurricane preparedness plan that proved to be deeply inadequate when Katrina hit.
A list of approved construction firms has not been released yet, but since the R3 funding is reimbursement-based, very few small, local construction companies are likely to be able to participate.
Which private actors will find ways to use recovery funds to profit off the FEMA flood zones remains to be seen. San Isidro is located in the northeastern interior of Puerto Rico, but many of the flood zones are located on the coast. “In the coastal zone, you’re going to find very poor, black communities,” Godreau-Aubert explained. “At the same time, you’ll find tourism and the millionaire investors who are being attracted by tax incentives.”
Although the guidelines for the R3 program state an intent to maintain vacated land as open space, to potentially be used for parks, agriculture, camping, or unpaved parking lots, the language does not bar new private development. Equally worrisome, no plans have even been released for $8.3 billion designated for mitigation to protect communities from future flooding. Properties once determined too vulnerable for rehabilitation could become newly valuable only after residents have been pushed out.
In a complaint filed with HUD, Ayuda Legal demanded that deed restrictions barring redevelopment be applied to property acquired through the relocation program and that mitigation be an option before relocation. So far, the government hasn’t budged.
“A just recovery has to respond to the necessities and the desires of the people,” said González-Rodriguez. Too often, she continued, “the assistance that they receive really doesn’t conform to their needs but to those of others — others that could be the government, others that could be private companies, others that could be the hotel that is in the community. That’s true in San Isidro as much as it is in all of the poor communities of Puerto Rico.”
Resilience in the Hurricane Belt
In some sections of San Isidro, residents arrived in the wake of another storm, Hurricane Hugo, in 1989. Some say they were offered land by a former mayor eager to build a base of voters.
Jannette Lozada, a petite woman with a commanding presence, has been the community leader of San Isidro’s Valle Hill section for 17 years. “They call us invaders, and I am not an invader,” Lozada told The Intercept, referring to a derogatory term used for squatters. She was pregnant with her fourth child, she says, when her stepmother told her that the mayor of Canóvanas was giving out land. She had nothing at the time. Her home and many others in the Santurce neighborhood of the capital, San Juan, had been destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. “I came here, and they gave me this.”
Community leaders play an important, if under-appreciated, role in places like San Isidro. Lozada is a gatekeeper, peacemaker, and organizing hub of Valle Hill. Few outside organizations operate in the neighborhood, but, if asked, people like Lozada and Colón can tell you exactly who needs help and what they need.
When it starts to rain, Lozada’s phone often rings. It’s her neighbors calling, crying out of fear of the next storm. Maria flooded the neighborhood with up to 10 feet of water, destroying hundreds of homes. For months, there was no running water or electricity, and residents relied on donated products like Ensure to stave off hunger. The rain gives her anxiety too. “Now September is coming, which is the worst here,” she said.
Lozada credits the Clínica Legal Psicológica, a small legal and psychological aid clinic, as the only organization that provided meaningful support for residents fighting recovery aid denials. But the organization’s funding recently ran dry. Despite the desperate need for its services in San Isidro, the majority of its work is now done on a volunteer basis.
Lozada and Colón spent years before Maria pushing for a dike to be constructed, but the project was repeatedly put off.
To Lozada, a dike is the only answer to the question of how to protect San Isidro from future flooding. She and Colón spent years before Maria pushing for one to be constructed, but the project was repeatedly put off. They blame the delay on Canóvanas Mayor Lornna Soto, with whom the community board has clashed.
In the spring of 2018, Soto told press that the city needed to find $20 million to pay for the dike and that the HUD funds might make the difference. But she said completing the project could take one to three years (which translated to many community members as one to three hurricane seasons) and would still require dozens of people to relocate. She did not mention the dike in a separate presentation she made about the municipality’s plans for the recovery funds.
As Lozada sees it, the neglect is a question of politics. The community board doesn’t support Soto or the pro-statehood PNP party, so the mayor doesn’t prioritize the one thing that could save San Isidro. Soto denied a request for an interview.
Photos: Christopher Gregory for The Intercept
Lozada said she’d love to see a federal monitor come in and keep a close accounting of the way the recovery money is spent. In fact, in the wake of Rosselló’s resignation, under pressure from Trump, HUD announced plans to appoint a monitor to oversee the disbursement of new funds to Puerto Rico.
But federal oversight has not proven an effective tool to beat corruption and mismanagement on the island. The fiscal oversight board imposed by the Obama administration to oversee debt restructuring has imposed extensive austerity measures on the island, yet corruption scandals have continued, and calls from Puerto Rican residents to audit the debt have been disregarded. Meanwhile, some of the most high-profile hurricane recovery scandals have involved federal officials, not Puerto Rican officials. In the end, the monitor may only serve to slow down projects like the dike. According to a HUD spokesperson, the department will not deliver the mitigation funds until the federal monitor is in place.
If it’s not going to be a dike, Lozada isn’t wholly opposed to relocation. But for the process to be fair, she argues, it needs to be planned via community assemblies, with an option for neighbors to move together to a new location that shares some of San Isidro’s best qualities, like its semi-rural quality, which allows neighbors to raise chickens and enjoy the lush vegetation.
“That is what I want,” she said. “If there’s going to be a relocation, that it be just, that it truly, truly help us.” But that’s not how it usually goes.
After Hurricane Georges caused widespread flooding in 1998, for example, FEMA paid for many residents of a community west of San Isidro to be relocated to a low-income housing project, but some families were never placed, so they never left. In 2009, FEMA threatened to force the Puerto Rican government to return millions in federal funding if the structures in the neighborhood, known as Villas del Sol, weren’t removed. That August, the Puerto Rican government shut off water and electricity in the area, leading to outbreaks of dengue fever and H1N1. Police entered with bulldozers, liberally deploying pepper spray and batons.
The Villas del Sol community resisted forced eviction, and finally, in 2010, agreed to relocate to a plot of land that had been provided by a wealthy donor. But nearly 10 years later, the infrastructure promised by the government in return still has not been installed.
“Many people are going to take the money, but me, I say one thing: Here, I live well. Here, the kids still play in the street,” Lozada said. With its high rate of poverty, environmental insecurity, and active drug trade, life in Valle Hill is not always easy. But it’s the type of place where neighbors help each other weather a storm. “Sometimes I may have wanted to go, but, I’m saying, where would I go?”
Update: September 25, 2019
This article has been updated to clarify the role of the Clínica Legal Psicológica in providing support to communities like San Isidro.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.