YAUCO, Puerto Rico — Nydia Camacho’s ankles are swollen and puffy after days of sleeping in a compact car with her two teenagers.
The single mother can’t return to her rented home because it shakes. The one she owns is a roofless jumble of wood and tin, uninhabitable since the hurricanes ravaged it. The 39-year-old is low on cash, her hours as a private security guard have been suspended because the public school she protects is closed.
The bridges that usually get her to work or neighboring towns, where she buys insulin, are cracked and unstable. Traffic has moved to dangerous single-lane roads through banana plantations and poorly paved paths peppered by falling rocks from the near-constant temblors.
The houses, the schools, the bridges — all victims of the slow trickle of more than $20 billion in promised federal funding intended to aid the reconstruction of lives here in Puerto Rico. Residents have been waiting since September 2017 for their government in Washington to send relief. The instability was at first unsettling, then upending and now tormenting as hundreds of earthquakes have been rattling the southern coast, deepening the destitution and fear that the help may never come.
“If my house had been repaired, I might have something to return to now,” Camacho said. “Do you know what it is to have so many people like me who can’t move on? All we need is a little push to get going.”
The temblors in recent days have caused an estimated $110 million in damage, with more than 700 homes affected and nearly 8,000 people forced to sleep outside in camps, local officials said. President Donald Trump, who has complained about wasteful spending on the island, signed a major disaster declaration Thursday — more than five days after Puerto Rico’s government made the request for more federal help. Hurricane Maria’s emergency declaration came the same day the tempest swept the island two years ago.
Congress has since approved a total of $44 billion for recovery from Maria between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. About $8 billion of that money was used for immediate emergency recovery via agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Small Business Administration and U.S. Health and Human Services medical brigades in the storm’s aftermath.
Of the remaining $36 billion, $16 billion is slated for the island via FEMA, which has obligated about $7 billion for recovery and mitigation projects so far. HUD has about $20 billion set aside for Puerto Rico, but until this month, the island’s residents have had access to just $1.5 billion of it.
While the crumbled infrastructure and crushed buildings are the obvious signs of what has happened here, it is the people of Puerto Rico — most of them U.S. citizens — who display the suffering as a result of the delayed and deferred disaster dollars. Their anger and dismay spills over regularly, such as this weekend, as residents called for an islandwide strike to protest the discovery of a Ponce warehouse full of unused disaster supplies including bottled water, cots, propane gas tanks and diapers. (See the YouTube video below.)
Many of the items were expired and date to Hurricane Maria. Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced quickly fired Puerto Rico’s emergency management director.
It is yet another example of the deep mistrust many Puerto Ricans have for government of all levels. The billions of dollars of hurricane recovery money that would have helped municipal governments reinforce bridges, roads and public buildings are trapped in bureaucratic wormholes complicated by funding conditions that have not been imposed on any other U.S. jurisdiction but Puerto Rico. Block grants that would have allowed Hurricane Maria’s most impoverished survivors to relocate, rebuild or repair their homes sit in the U.S. Treasury.
“Natural phenomena don’t have to become disasters,” said Jose Caraballo-Cueto, an economist and professor at the University of Puerto Rico. “But here, they become disasters because of the decisions and actions of a few human beings.”
Alex Amparo, the federal coordinating officer who came to Puerto Rico about four months ago, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is responding to the disasters at a decent pace, noting that he expects to make funds available for 300 projects this month.
“There’s a lot of people looking backward, I’m going forward,” Amparo said. “Some people talk about bureaucracies, I talk about processes that must be followed. So, an internal control is not a bureaucracy. It’s an assurance that funding is being used the way it should be.”
The Trump administration said Thursday that it will loosen holds on some of the money but will require new restrictions on Puerto Rico’s use of federal funds because of concerns about corruption and financial mismanagement on the bankrupt island, though Puerto Ricans often point out that the most high-profile public corruption case here involved federal employees — two FEMA officials who were charged with fraud and bribery surrounding $1.8 billion in contracts to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid. Local officials fear the new regulations will mean more delays.
“There is no one more interested in seeing the money used correctly than everyday Puerto Ricans,” said Miguel Soto-Class, president of Puerto Rico’s Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank. “We kicked out a governor because of it.”
During a news conference Friday, the governor said Puerto Rico will comply with all the federal government’s rules on disaster funding: “We will demonstrate that we are going to do things the right way.”
A mountain of problems and no resources
Yauco Mayor Angel Torres Ortiz races around his town of about 30,000 in a golf cart, meeting with his team in a trailer in the parking lot of a sports coliseum. His phone buzzes constantly, and people have been stopping him on the street.
“Mayor, I have a major problem,” says one man who spotted him at a community center where people were serving food to the displaced. “Someone needs to put up caution tape around my house. It’s not safe in there and someone is going to get hurt.”
Torres Ortiz takes note and heads to a bridge to meet an engineer with an update on demolition. Jersey walls block motorists from crossing the span, which runs over a highway and connects the Cambalache barrio to the center of town. It is cracked and unusable.
This is an important bridge, the mayor said, slated for repair after the 2017 hurricane season along with about 158 other projects the municipality submitted for funding. Yauco leaders said fewer than a dozen of these types of reconstruction projects have been guaranteed money.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Torres Ortiz said. “I feel powerless. It makes us all wonder whether this really is simply discrimination?”
In Guayanilla, where a large percentage of the island’s electricity is produced, the main government building can’t be used and bridges are on the verge of collapse. Though projects to fix them have preliminary approval, repair work has not begun because the money has not been guaranteed, said Carlos Jirau, who manages the municipality’s public works portfolio. Guayanilla, hit hard during Hurricane Maria, also suffered some of the greatest damage in this month’s earthquakes because of its proximity to the epicenter, off the southwestern coast.
“There are mechanisms for FEMA and the federal government to accelerate projects,” said Jirau, who along with other municipal leaders is advocating for the funds to go directly to local governments. “We are ready to work … but we don’t have the resources.”
Puerto Rico has been in financial ruin for years. And on their own, cities like Yauco — which is facing a $10 million budget deficit and debts of up to $40 million — cannot start a project until they know the money has been placed in an escrow account. If the Trump administration is worried about state-level corruption, Torres Ortiz said, it could appoint a federal monitor to work with mayors to speed things up.
“Puerto Ricans have spilled blood for the American flag in the same way as any citizen of the 50 states,” the mayor said. “We respect his government, but he can’t punish the population for the decisions of the leaders of the past … They are punishing the island at large for the actions of a few.”
Accessing FEMA’s public assistance funds can be an arduous process, and policy experts say the island’s government has struggled to build the capacity and technical expertise to carry out site inspections, audit cost estimates and review designs needed for approval of public infrastructure projects.
The government has the added complication of working under an austerity program mandated by an appointed fiscal management board, which Trump empowered Thursday with more oversight authority over federal funds.
Puerto Rico’s recovery czar, Ottmar Chavez, said his department has had to make adjustments but is scaling up its operation and has accelerated project approval since his arrival six months ago. He said he is confident large disbursements will begin in earnest in the next fiscal quarter, but he worries that additional oversight could get in the way.
“The stigma for putting more controls creates more bureaucracy,” said Chavez, who is head of the Central Office Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency, dubbed COR3. “We need an expedited way of getting the funds.”
Congress also set aside $2 billion for repairs to the fragile power grid, but the Puerto Rico government and power utility company do not have access to it.
“We don’t really know where the bottleneck is,” said Sergio Marxuach, who has been tracking federal funding for Puerto Rico’s energy sector for the Center for a New Economy. While Hurricane Maria destroyed the transmission and distribution lines of Puerto Rico’s electric power system, the earthquakes exposed vulnerabilities in power generation, shutting down facilities along the southern coast that provide for the entire island.
But it is the held-up HUD funding — $20 billion — that triggers acute outrage in Puerto Rico, because a large chunk of that money would award the island’s lowest-income families grants of up to $60,000 for home repairs or $150,000 to rebuild or relocate.
“For us, everything is a struggle,” said Becky Casiano Roman, 37, who lives with her mother in a rotting house on the border between Yauco and Guayanilla that sustained water damage during Hurricane Maria. “When you need help, it always takes time, and we are all alone here. We can hope for help but don’t expect it anymore.”
HUD was supposed to make $8.3 billion in disaster mitigation funds available months ago, but officials failed to meet deadlines for issuing rules on how Puerto Rico can use the money. The agency’s inspector general told congressional staffers last year that HUD hampered their investigation into the handling of disaster aid.
The Puerto Rico government has encountered its own set of administrative troubles. Critics say it has been slow in drawing down from the available funds and rolling out its programs. The government faced challenges navigating HUD’s regulations and developing structures that fit the island’s idiosyncrasies; it has had particular difficulty dealing with the fact that many people here lack land titles or proof of ownership.
There have also been questions about the transparency of contracting. The bulk of the federal money Puerto Rico has spent went to firms based on the U.S. mainland and not to local ones.
Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil-Enseñat said it has taken longer than expected to launch the programs for homeowners, but operations are beginning to ramp up. He said part of the challenge has been the grant agreements that outline the rules for disbursements, which have increased from six pages to more than 100.
“We know we are under the microscope,” Gil-Enseñat said.
The slow march of bureaucracy
Puerto Rico has some of the highest child poverty, food insecurity and unemployment rates in the United States. Though jobs have disappeared and programs such as food stamps and Medicaid have been slashed, many Puerto Ricans still have had their homes and land — until now.
When the government advertised applications had opened in September for its new housing program after more than two years of delays, Camacho, the Yauco mother, immediately went online to apply.
“I just want a roof over my head and for us to have our own house,” said Camacho, whose great uncle gave her the land where the remains of her house are. “I thought about selling it, but that property is the only thing I have.”
Hundreds of homeowners submitted paperwork, according to municipal records, and most did not have home insurance or their insurers never paid. Some of the same homes that were waiting on Hurricane Maria money also have been compromised by the earthquakes.
Rebecca Casiano, 63, lives with her daughter in their devastated home, pieces of shredded blue tarp poking out from underneath the corrugated tin that makes up the roof. It clatters with each aftershock.
The grandmother did not qualify for FEMA programs because she has not found the deed to the property. The delayed federal money is also intended to fund programs to help families like Casiano’s obtain the paperwork to prove ownership and find a new home.
“This is our last hope,” Casiano said. “We have nowhere else to go.”
Camacho said she didn’t qualify for FEMA funds because she fled her wooden home in Barina barrio a few days before Maria hit amid fears that it would not hold up to the storm. She tried another loan program but didn’t meet its eligibility requirements. Then she went to the bank, but Camacho’s $12,000 annual salary couldn’t get her a loan. Camacho believes she has exhausted all her options.
She scraped together enough cash to rent a home in Guayanilla for her family of three. Then, the earthquakes began and the front seat of her car became her bed.
The review process moves slowly. Of the 452 program applicants in Yauco, so far about 12 percent were declared “pre-eligible,” according to municipal records.
“So few of us have a secure roof over our heads,” Camacho said. “I wonder if the president could put himself in our shoes.”