Several interviewees explained that the devastation of Hurricane Maria brought  once again the issue of the large number of informal buildings in Puerto Rico, where an estimated 7,000 houses are built without permits. (horizontal-x3)
Several interviewees explained that the devastation of Hurricane Maria brought once again the issue of the large number of informal buildings in Puerto Rico, where an estimated 7,000 houses are built without permits. (Luis Alcalá del Olmo)

Ceiba - Sitting on the steps of what used to be her house by the sea, Aleida Rivera looks silently at the distance. It's a glorious afternoon. The hot sun reflected on silver flashes on the waves that come, tired, to a shore with stones.

 The soft sound of the sea is numbing. A warm wind plays with the white curls of the 58 year old woman. Her sight set on the horizon, where the green side of the island of Palomino is drawn against the transparent sky.

"I like coming here. I do not swim, but I love the sea. I have peace and silence here," says Aleida.

Concentrating on the horizon, the sun and the wind allows Aleida to move herself, even for moments as short as lightning, from the painful picture that surrounds her. The house she bought for $ 25,000 in cash eleven years ago, with her savings and those of her couple then, was totally destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

She lost the roof, walls, everything inside and even a renewable energy system that she had bought and put together herself at a cost of $ 6,177.

She sobs when asked about her impression when she saw the pile of debris in which Maria turned the home that she maintained with hard work. "I did not expect to find it like this," she says, composing herself. "It's hard because you make a lot of sacrificies. I only depend on Social Security. I save from the little I get and I got my things little by little…”

The community in which Aleida lives, Punta Figuera, was obliterated by the hurricane. There may not be another case like this in Puerto Rico: the whole community disappeared, swept mercilessly by the winds of Maria.

There were 49 houses, most of them fishermen´s houses. All gone. A month ago there was a community here. Now it looks as if a bomb had fell: silence, tension, piles of debris, trash, destruction.

Only a few chicken survived, nobody knows how.

There is no precise idea of how many houses Maria completely destroyed after digging her claw of terror in Puerto Rico last September 20. But all the estimates show horrendous figures.

Scary estimates

The Housing Department of Puerto Rico and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) say they were between 25,000 and 30,000. A study commissioned by the National Association of Home Builders (ACH, Spanich Acronym) to the firm Estudios Técnicos preliminarily shows figures of between 60,000 and 90,000. Credit rating agency Moody's said in a report released last week that the figure rises to 100,000.

Several analyzis indicate that the damage of Maria will be at least five times higher than Georges, in 1998, the last great hurricane that Puerto Rico suffered. Georges totally destroyed 28,000 residences. Everyone agrees that the number of homes with partial damage is 250,000.

Some mayors have given figures that, extrapolated, suggest an appalling balance: in Rio Grande, 5,000 homes disappeared. In Guayama , 2,500, in Luquillo, 180. Wherever you look, there is a roofless house, without walls, a pile of waste, people who are both astonished and grieving before the remains of what once was a home.

There has been a lot of changes in Puerto Rico since the last US Government census in 2010. But at that time, there were 1,636,000 housing units on the island,  with an average of 2,85 persons per house.

Considering the most conservative of the figures, 25,000, it would mean that about 71,250 people were left homeless due to Hurricane Maria.

If Moody´s estimates of 100,000 were considered, the homeless today would be 285,000, or 8% of the total population of Puerto Rico. If it were five times greater than Georges, it would mean 400,000 people suddenly left with nothing.

Estudios Técnicos estimated at $ 16,59 billion the losses of homes destroyed or affected by Maria.

“Yo estoy por ahí como armando un rompecabezas buscando las piezas que eran mi casa a ver qué tengo y qué me falta para empezar otra vez”, dijo Manuel Piñero, un pescador de Punta Figuera que también perdió su hogar.

"I'm out there like putting a puzzle together,  looking for the pieces that were my house to see what I have and what I need to start over," said Manuel Piñero, a fisherman from Punta Figuera who also lost his home.

Few alternatives

They are people who are literally in the open, with few options to have a roof they can call their own in the short and medium term. Many of those who lost their homes have left the island. On Friday, there were 5,414 refugees in schools. Others are staying with relatives or have rented other properties.

FEMA offers help for rebuilding homes. But only for those who can prove that the houses belonged to them, that they were in lots for which they have a  property title or that were built with the government permits.

No one knows how many people live on lot without property title, but all estimates point out that they are too many. In just three municipalities, Carolina, Loíza and Canóvanas, 11,000 families live on land over which they do not have title, said Housing Secretary Fernando Gil.

The ACH, meanwhile, estimates that 55% of all housing units in Puerto Rico do not have permits of any kind.

These are the homes built on slopes, on invaded land or in the maritime land area, as is the case of Punta Figuera.

For those, FEMA help will be limited to paying them for the losses of what was inside their homes or helping them with rent payments while finding permanent housing. Rebuilding their homes, if that were their decision, is going to have to be by themselves. Other options are also rare at this time, considering the magnitude of the loss.

Secretary Gil said there are 2,500 housing units available in public housing, but they have to be remodeled. Besides, there were 25,000 people on the waiting list before the hurricane.

There are also 450 Section 8 vouchers, which helps people with rent payments in private homes. Gil stated he is requesting the US Department of Housing to authorize more vouchers for Puerto Rico.

The director of FEMA in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, Alejandro de la Campa, added that after the passage of Georges the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States built 1,500 residences in concrete, in 16 municipalities, for people living in flood-prone areas and could prove that they owned the house they had lost.

On that occasion, FEMA covered 75% of the cost of the homes. De la Campa believes that this time another similar program could be approved and in view of the magnitude of this disaster and the critical fiscal picture of the Puerto Rican government he will propose that FEMA cover the entire cost.

"They have to own the property. We can build houses in solid cement in non-risk areas. We even demolish what is left of the old house so that no one can rebuild there," said de la Campa.

There is also an inventory on the Island of 18,000 uninhabited homes repossessed by banks. But only 6,000 of these were built according to current building codes and the rest has to be remodeled if they are to be made available to people who lost their homes during Hurricane Maria, said ACH president, architect Ricardo Álvarez.

There are also on the Island about 2,000 new, recently built houses that had not been sold.

Thayreen López Mariela, a 30-year-old unemployed single mother of three, lost the half-wood and half-concrete house she inherited from her grandmother three years ago in the Quebrada Huerta neighborhood of Fajardo.

Thayreen is not sure whether the lot on which the house is located has a property title.

The young woman, who is a refugee in a school in Fajardo, wants to return home with a tarp, but she was told that if she gets there with her children she can be reported for mistreatment to the Department of the Family. The option that was offered to her and that she is considering, resigned, is to move to a public residential.

"They told me that they were supposed to send us to a farmhouse, but neither the children nor me like farmhouses. I will have to go to one until I fix my house, not permanently," she said.

Georgina Velázquez lost the house in which she raised eleven children,  the two youngest ones still living with her in the Maternillo neighborhood, also in Fajardo. The land, she expressed, belong to the Municipality of Fajardo.

The woman bought her house with $ 10,000 she received from FEMA for the personal belongings she lost in her home during Hurricane Georges.

"FEMA came and we filled in the papers. But it means nothing, because there is no communication. I do not even have the FEMA control number," said the woman.

Several interviewees explained that the devastation of Hurricane Maria brought  once again the issue of the large number of informal buildings in Puerto Rico, where an estimated 7,000 houses are built without permits. But it also offers a good opportunity to end that practice in Puerto Rico.

"It is unfair to people with few resources when they say they build informally. Poor people do not have many options, because hiring an architect, engineer or surveyor to oversee the construction is expensive. But we must also talk about the people who have economic capacity and build as they want in an informal way," pointed out Alvarez, who proposes a guidance and education program to help people have safer homes.

Secretary Gil also believes that a policy should be established to balance between what is accessible to people and safe at the same time. "We have to set standards so that a home is affordable, but also safe," said the official.

Architect Alberto Lastra,  former Secretary of Housing, stated that Puerto Rico, as a poor Island, has never had the capacity to provide safe housing for the entire population.

But I think experiences like Hurricane Maria show that it is necessary to be stricter. Lastra also is concerned about what may happen if Puerto Rico is shocked by an earthquake due to the large number of residences which construction was not supervised by any professional.

"In Puerto Rico we did not have an earthquake for a very long time, and when the big one comes it will be very late," he explained.

Decided to go back home

Aleida Rivera, who is staying with her mother, says she loves the house where she lives alone. She had another house of her own, but she gave it to the bank, without even holding anything of what she had inside, because a daughter who lived there was murdered and she could not stand her memories.

The house of Punta Figuera is in lands of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, Spanish acronym).

Aleida has a pension for disability. But still she is a dressmaker and took the course of installation of photovoltaic systems that allowed her to reach the dream of many: to be self-sufficient in terms of power generation.

She says they will not get her out of the only place she considers to be hers, where she will return soon. "I'm going to rebuild. No matter if FEMA gives me money or not. Come back in three months, and you will see," Aleida says smiling.


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