U.S. government treats Puerto Rico with 'disdain' in aftermath of Hurricane Maria, says lawyer

People in Puerto Rico have watched friends and relatives die as the infrastructure crumbled in the wake of Hurricane Maria last September. As the new hurricane season starts, people on the island say they are ill-equipped to cope with another storm.

Puerto Ricans say they have watched friends and relatives die as the infrastructure crumbled

A woman holds a placard, that reads 'genocide' in English, at a protest in front of the Puerto Rican capitol building in San Juan, on June 1, 2018. People laid shoes of relatives or friends who had died in front of the building, as a way to dispute the official death toll. (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen23:25

Read Story Transcript

Lawyer Gabriela Camacho says the U.S. federal government treated Puerto Rico with "disdain" in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

"The president came here and threw paper towels at us," Camacho, who has been working with NGOs providing legal assistance to victims, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

​"We are a territory of the United States," she said, "and independent of people's personal political beliefs, there is the responsibility of the fact that we are American citizens."

Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory last September with winds of close to 240 km/hr and caused an estimated $90 billion US worth of damage. While the official death toll was set at 64, a recent survey of residents on the island suggests the actual figure could be 73 times higher than that, at 4,645.​

 
Richard Garcia Jr explains how both of his parents died in the months following Hurricane Maria. 1:57
 

Tayna Fernandez, a resident of Naguabo, a municipality on the east side of the island, recalled her friend who died weeks after the hurricane because he couldn't get the dialysis he needed.

"He died … three weeks or a month after the hurricane," Fernandez told Tremonti.

"It's so hard because I used to listen to him [say] 'I'm going to my dialysis centre, and the lines are so long.'"

Without power, people couldn't get treatment, she said, and were forced to wait in line for ambulances that never came.

"He was just 36."

Mental health concerns for survivors

Fernandez has been at the forefront of aid efforts in Puerto Rico, leading recovery efforts in her local community with a group called Naguabo Family Contact. The group uses Facebook to collect funds and connect people in the States with family in the region.

They distribute supplies like mosquito nets to remote areas, which she said are still without power eight months after the hurricane.

But beyond that, the emotional toll on survivors is becoming more apparent.

"You can see this all across the island, people with suicide thoughts," Fernandez said, adding that the group is working to be able to bring a psychologist with them on their relief trips.

Tayna Fernandez, left, passes out supplies as part of relief efforts in Naguabo, Puerto Rico on Feb. 11, 2018. (Submitted by Tayna Fernandez)

A report from the Puerto Rico Department of Health stated that there were 3,050 calls to a suicide prevention helpline in the three months to January 2018 — from people saying they had attempted to kill themselves. That's a 246 per cent increase from the 882 calls in the same period last year.

Fernandez is trying to reach people in remote areas like Yabucoa, where she said people are "desperate."

"When you take this little relief of water filters, and mosquito nets and solar light bulbs you see how happy they get, because at least somebody remembers them."

Many are still living under roofs patched with tarps provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], she said, despite the fact that the new hurricane season started June 1.

Tayna Fernandez said she saw houses "explode from the inside out." (Submitted by Naguabo Family Contact)

Roadblocks to FEMA assistance

In April, FEMA announced that assistance funds approved for Puerto Rico had reached $2 billion US. But a lawyer working on the island said that individual citizens trying to secure FEMA assistance are met with "a constantly changing bureaucracy maze."

"The main problem is people being able to prove their ownership," said Camacho.

Gabriela Camacho, a lawyer, said that individual Puerto Ricans have found it difficult to deal with FEMA directly. (Submitted by Gabriela Camacho)

Last week, she met an 85-year-old man living in a house so damaged that it floods whenever it rains.

"He lived there all his life, with his father and his brothers. He's the only surviving heir and he can't find the deed to his house," she said.

"Every neighbour, everyone knows he has lived there, and FEMA won't believe it."

Applicants are also being asked to provide contractor estimates for repairs, she said, at their own cost.

Citizens were asked to apply for FEMA assistance online during the period directly after the hurricane, when people in many areas were without power. (Submitted by Naguabo Family Contact)

Camacho said that in the aftermath of the disaster, people without electricity were told to apply for assistance online. While FEMA did send representatives to some areas, she claims many of those people only spoke English and did not bring translators.

NGOs tried to help by collecting details on paper while visiting remote regions, and applying in bulk when they returned to areas with WiFi.

The deadline to apply for assistance was extended several times, she said. It is now set at June 18, 2018.

Survivors left the shoes of dead friends and relatives at the capitol building in Puerto Rico on June 1, 2018. (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Shanti Lalita, a musician from San Juan, reports from a demonstration against the official Hurricane Maria death toll. 3:01

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


Written by Padraig Moran. This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.