The Simple Things In Life: Observations of post-Maria Puerto Rico

10_37_42Four months have passed since hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and conditions are far less than adequate, but the people are pushing through and doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.  Private companies, organizations, and individuals have stepped up to work with their fellow Americans where the government has failed.  Most of all, the sense of community and perseverance among Puerto Ricans has been extremely touching and motivating.

As a student attorney in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law, I have observed that even in the most rehabilitated areas of San Juan, it is common to find electric poles snapped in half, transformers dangling a few feet from the ground, hundreds of feet of electric cables lining the edges of the roads, homes with tarp roofs, as well as homes with no roof at all that are still inhabited. The majority of traffic lights still do not work at all, many road and highway signs are uprooted and knocked-over, and there are periodic piles of brush and debris on the sides of roads. There are never ending remnants of the destruction Maria wrought and reminders of the abandonment of Puerto Rico.

Our #UBLawResponds law clinic has been going on what we call “humanitarian brigades” in rural towns, where we bring communities necessities such as soap, baby wipes, adult diapers, batteries, bed pads, towels, and solar lamps. So far, it has been one of the most important experiences of my life. People are struggling so hard just to survive. After Maria, thousands of people began leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland and as time has passed, thousands more people followed suit. Some abandoned houses have laundry hanging on the patio along with plants tastefully placed potted plants. Some of the most recently abandoned houses look as if the occupants disappeared mid-day.

This exodus to the mainland has led to tangential problems with serious consequences. Numerous disabled and bed-ridden people have died because their neighbors and caretakers moved to the mainland and no one remained who knew about their condition. On one brigade, we stopped at the house of a bed-ridden individual to give them a box of supplies, but he had died two days before we got there. A neighbor was caring for another elderly bed-ridden individual. When we began giving the caretaker some general supplies, she was very touched … but when we gave her a towel, she began to cry. A towel. A simple $2.88 bath towel from Walmart meant so much to this kind woman that she began to cry.

As difficult as these encounters are, I am thankful for them. I am thankful we are able to help people in significant ways. I am thankful for the reality check and perspective they provide. Most of all, I am thankful I get to see the strength, kindness, resilience, and perseverance of Puerto Ricans.

#PRSeLevanta! If you would like to support the continuing work of #UBLawResponds, please click here.

Get Off My Lawn! Difficulties in Determining Land and Home Ownership

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Puerto Rico is a beautiful and unique place. The only tropical rainforest in the United States is El Yunque in Puerto Rico, the world’s most sensitive single-dish radio telescope capable of radar astronomy is in Puerto Rico, and at least 50 species of animals found only in Puerto Rico are just a couple ways in which the island is one-of-a-kind. More relevantly, homelessness, unauthorized home construction, undocumented transfers of ownership, and unique laws in Puerto Rico present incredibly unique legal issues and dilemmas.

Families in Puerto Rico are very close-knit and it is not unusual for adult children to build homes on their parents’ property in order to remain close, and due to a lack of resources to buy property or a house of their own. The family may build a separate building for the grown children to move into with their spouses, or they may build additional rooms onto the parents’ house. Resulting legal issues abound: “landowners” often lack a proper title; even if landowners do have a title, proper building permits often have not been obtained; and often a proper deed does not exist to prove ownership of the structures. Without these documents, pursuing legal avenues after a damaging event or disaster can be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Puerto Rico’s rural housing realities have made recovery from Hurricane Maria’s even more difficult. Imagine your family has lived in the same valley for generations—each generation building another small house just a few yards away from their parents’ house. The houses have now spread up the side of the mountain and across the valley. Now imagine a Category 4 hurricane hits the island, dumping 30 inches of rain on you and your family in 18 hours. The valley floods and landslides come down parts of the mountains, winds exceeding 200 mph tear off roofs and rip trees from the ground, turning them into missiles. The flooding changes the course of the nearby river and houses fall over its banks. Every house is damaged in some way. What are you going to do?

This is just a fraction of what the citizens in Puerto Rico had to deal with after hurricane Maria. They had to cope with their lives being completely uprooted and altered. Many, many people lost both their homes and their jobs, leaving them unable to rebuild or pay for housing. The vast majority of citizens have been denied assistance by FEMA: one especially impoverished town has had a 100% denial rate.

FEMA denials have largely been supported by reasons such as lack of proof of ownership, insufficient damage, or continued inhabitance. These reasons for denial carry no weight. FEMA requirements for proof of ownership are very low and can be met by a sworn affidavit. Claims of insufficient damage are false and cannot be proven as many of the adjusters never set foot in or around the houses they’ve issued denials for. And denials due to continued inhabitance are cruel and improper. These people aren’t living in these broken and dangerous houses because they want to, or because the damage isn’t severe enough to warrant moving; they are living in these houses because they have no other choice.

These citizens have the option to appeal FEMA’s denials, an option that will hopefully allow them to obtain the assistance they need and deserve. You can help this happen by donating to our local community partner organization who is working on the ground on the Island, Ayuda Legal Huracán María, and by supporting continuing efforts by the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law, #UBLawResponds.