'No Man's Land': An Isolated Puerto Rican Island Struggles To Rebuild
Nearly three months after Hurricane Maria, parts of Puerto Rico are showing clear signs of recovery. But in Vieques, a remote island with nearly 9,000 residents eight miles off the main island's coast, recovery is a long way off. There, some live in dingy conditions as they wait for help to rebuild, while others gather what they can to do it themselves.
Gregorio Velazquez Rivera, an 81-year-old who is blind, has left his destroyed home — which is totally unlivable — virtually untouched in the months since the hurricane.
He recently tore open an envelope from the Federal Emergency Management Agency confirming his address and basic information — an early step in the process of receiving federal assistance to help rebuild his home.
But when FEMA inspectors eventually come looking for him, they won't find him at that address. The roof and several walls are caved in; the interior is a moldy mess of tree branches and destroyed furniture. One of the only things left standing is the bright pink facade adorned with a painted white horse.
"We need to rebuild a completely new house, it can't be fixed," he says.
On the night of the hurricane, Rivera and his niece fled as the powerful winds blew off their home's windows and doors. They're now squatting in a home across the street, which they say has been abandoned for decades with unknown owners. "They left and never came back," he says. "We invaded it in order to save our lives, because if not we would have died."
This abandoned house has no electricity or running water. His niece demonstrates how they draw brown, foul-smelling water for bathing from an improvised well in the back of the home. There's almost no furniture – a few chairs and a mattress placed on the floor in the middle of the room. A shelving unit has some packets of tuna, hand sanitizer and paper towels. Volunteers from a local aid organization try to keep the family supplied with bottles of drinking water and other necessities.
Asked if he feels that the U.S. government is neglecting Vieques residents, who are citizens, Rivera says "all the time. ... FEMA is supposed to help the people. And they have not even inspected, they have done nothing."
FEMA says it has secured more than $1 billion in assistance to more than 366,000 families across Puerto Rico, including $259 million explicitly for "rental, repair or to rebuild residences." But it is clear that assistance is reaching some areas more quickly than Vieques.
A FEMA spokesman says that FEMA has provided $1.5 million in disaster assistance to Vieques and that the agency has inspected about 1,400 homes there.
The spokesman, Daniel Llargués, said FEMA has received 2,434 registrations for assistance on Vieques. He says FEMA does not have a timeline for when it will finish conducting inspections.
"We continue to work with disaster survivors in Vieques and all 78 municipalities to continue inspections," he said in an emailed statement, adding that "many factors are in place while conducting inspections like scheduling date/times with disaster survivors, therefore we cannot provide a timeline of when inspections will be completed."
'There is no future here'
One pair of retirees on this island didn't feel like they could wait, and instead rebuilt their destroyed home themselves.
Seventy-year-old José Ramón Sierra Meléndez shows a photo of what was left of their home after Maria – just an empty wooden platform. The hurricane ripped it off a hillside, leaving almost nothing behind.
"It was very frustrating, seeing one's home destroyed to the ground, something that was made with so much effort, the only thing one has in one's life," says Melendez. Hurricane Irma took the roof off, and then Maria destroyed the rest of their home.
He and his wife, Felicita Garcia, scavenged pieces of wood from hurricane debris to construct a new structure – one part of the wall red, one blue, one raw wood.
A blue FEMA tarp is tied over the roof. Melendez says he didn't fill out any FEMA application – he was handed the tarp and a couple of boxes of water from one passing FEMA truck.
They were able to move back home from a shelter two weeks ago and a lot of work remains. One corner of the house is still exposed to the elements. "As you can see he's been doing this on a piecemeal basis, in order to finish this house it will take a long time," says Garcia. "Years," her husband sighs.
There's not a lot of wood to be found because many others here are trying to rebuild their homes, too. Destroyed structures dot the lush hillsides around them, where trees have already grown back their leaves in the months since the hurricane ripped them away.
To their great delight, electricity from the island's generator started working the previous week. They demonstrated how a bulb hanging from the ceiling turns on. Power isn't reaching all the island's homes, and goes in and out.
The couple's rebuilding efforts are rooted in a belief that no one is coming to help them. "This here is no man's land," says Garcia. "No man's land because no one sees us. ... I'm 66 years old and all my life Vieques has been marginalized. No one has done anything for Vieques, never."
Garcia rattles off a long list of grievances about life on the beautiful, struggling island — the fact that Vieques' main health center is operating tents in a parking lot, that the young people have to leave if they want to attend college, and often don't return because there aren't adequate job opportunities on the island. "The future?" she laughs. "There is no future here if things keep going as they are."
She's wearing a t-shirt with a heart, patterned with the U.S. flag. "I do not have hard feelings against the United States," Garcia says. "Our sentiment is, why have we been marginalized so?"
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