FEMA, Housing and the Loss of Wealth

A FEMA worker approaches a heavily damaged home after Hurricanes Irma and María. The loss of valuable assets and, hence, wealth will have a long-term impact on the Puerto Rican community. / FEMA Facebook

Puerto Rico hurricane evacuees in the Orlando area will begin fleeing FEMA-sponsored short-term housing as soon as next week, with others to follow in March 20.

Calls began months ago to pressure the Federal Emergency Management Agency to extend the deadline for the dozens of people who are still grappling with the sudden homelessness brought on by two back-to-back hurricanes.

FEMA states the program was temporary, which is true, and this week published a press release with the condescending title, “How to Create Permanent Housing Plans,” as if the agency were addressing ignorant people. Item No. 3: “Achieve long-term housing goals in a reasonable time frame.”

If only it were that easy.

If Only

If only Puerto Ricans were not so poor.

If only Hurricanes Irma and María had not made Puerto Ricans even poorer – 50 percent or more on the island meet official poverty levels, up from the 40-percent range before the hurricanes. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York estimates the hurricanes will lower Puerto Rican incomes by 21 percent over the next 15 years,  “a cumulative $180 billion in lost economic output.”

If only Puerto Ricans had not lost their most valuable assets – their homes and cars – the biggest possessions most people own.

If only.

But they did. Over 300,000 Puerto Ricans arrived in Florida from ravaged Puerto Rico, abandoning their vehicles at the airport, as reported in El Nuevo Día newspaper, likely to be towed and auctioned off. They left their damaged homes, where furniture and other possessions were destroyed, and much of which amounted to uninsured losses.

FEMA states that folks can return home even if repairs are incomplete, as long as “the exterior is structurally sound, including doors , roof and windows and the interior’s habitable areas are structurally sound, including ceilings and floors.”

If only.

Loss of  Wealth

But not only are many homes uninsured (only 50 percent had policies against wind damage and less than 1 percent had flood insurance, according to the Wall Street Journal) but FEMA also said it couldn’t help families without  title to a home.

Lamentably, that is a lot of people in Puerto Rico, where the island’s informal housing economy means homes are passed down through generations and where squatters build homes on land they don’t own. And now Puerto Rico is reporting higher foreclosure rates as well.

All of which amounts to an immeasurable loss of wealth likely to have long-term drag on Puerto Ricans as a group both here and elsewhere.

Pain and Suffering

Not to pick on only FEMA and its many flaws. After all, the agency has approved nearly 500,000 applications and over $1.022 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, with another $555 million obligated in public assistance grants.

The pain and suffering of the Puerto Rican people also has been exacerbated by inaction of the island’s commonwealth government. Just last month Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló stood before an adoring crowd of 400 people in Kissimmee and said that he had asked for long-term housing assistance for Puerto Rico first, to be followed by a request for stateside communities to which evacuees fled.

That turned out to be false. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the governor made the request January 31, more than two weeks after his Kissimmee visit. Florida Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio are now begging FEMA to approve the long-term housing, called Direct Lease, for Puerto Rico evacuees who have relocated to Florida.

If only.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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