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Months After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico Has A Long Recovery Ahead


It's been exactly six months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and the island is still a long way from recovery. One big reason for that is that people are struggling to get federal grants to repair their damaged homes. NPR's Adrian Florido reports that it's complicated because a lot of people can't prove they own their houses.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Jose Lopez lives in a small house at the edge of a dairy farm west of Puerto Rico's capital. Hurricane Maria stripped his roof right off.

JOSE LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Everything in the house was ruined," he says. "Appliances, furniture." A week after the storm, he filled out an application for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But six months later, Lopez says FEMA still hasn't approved it.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: The problem stems from the fact that Lopez does not have a deed for his property. In the 1970s, his grandfather asked the owner of the dairy farm across the way, where he worked as a foreman, if he could build his family a house on the farm. Yeah, his boss told him. It was an informal thing. No paperwork, no deeds.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Back then," Lopez says, "what mattered was a person's word and a handshake." But that is not enough for FEMA. Lopez has tried for months to provide the agency what it says it needs to approve a grant for his roof repairs. Last week, a lawyer helped him write an affidavit swearing the house is his. Now he's waiting some more, still moving his mattress to the living room when it rains so he doesn't get wet. Lopez's story is not unique. In Puerto Rico, FEMA has gotten more than a million applications for help after Hurricane Maria. It's approved home repair grants for 40 percent of them. It says one of the main reasons it's denying these applications is that people can't prove they own their homes. Fernando Gil, the island's housing secretary, says this stems from a huge problem on the island.

FERNANDO GIL: There's a lot of informal housing here in Puerto Rico.

FLORIDO: Much of it due to arrangements like Jose Lopez's, which are still common - farmers who let workers build homes on their properties, children building a house on their parents' lots, but also the many squatter communities that have sprung up because affordable housing is scarce. Lyvia Rodriguez del Valle works with one of the island's largest informal communities in San Juan. Many of its residents have been denied help from FEMA.

LYVIA RODRIGUEZ DEL VALLE: Recognizing that there is an issue of informality in Puerto Rico that's quite widespread, you know? It's very important that the policies that are being implemented find ways to make this assistance available to the people who need it.

FLORIDO: Mike Byrne is the top FEMA official in Puerto Rico, and he says the agency has found a way. If people can't provide a property deed, FEMA is accepting affidavits swearing that an applicant owns a damaged house, if not the land underneath.

MIKE BYRNE: I will tell you that the program guidance that we've issued to our staff is to honor the affidavits. And, you know, we really shouldn't be diving any deeper than that.

FLORIDO: Byrne says if applications are being rejected, it's because there's something else missing. Cynthia Caldero (ph). says the whole process has worn her out. In 2010, she built her little wooden home in an informal community, no title. Maria blew it to the ground, and Caldero has been denied a repair grant four times. She keeps the denial letters in a little black backpack.

CYNTHIA CALDERO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Denied, the letter says. Can't prove ownership." Caldero may appeal again. The last month, a nonprofit repaired her little house using wood. If FEMA eventually does approve her application, she said she'll replace the wood with concrete so it'll maybe survive the next hurricane. Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.