Shelter from the Storm: Puerto Rico’s Uninsured Homeowners Face an Uphill Battle to Rebuild in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

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The phrase on this abandoned building in Arroyo, Puerto Rico translates to “The hand of God.”

When Hurricane Maria’s Category 4+ winds slammed into Puerto Rico last September, they exposed serious issues with the island territory’s infrastructure that go beyond providing water and electricity. For both economic and cultural reasons, Puerto Rico is woefully underinsured, leaving many homeowners without adequate funding to rebuild their shattered homes and dependent on a bankrupt territorial government on the one hand, and a federal government that seems, at best, reluctant to offer its full assistance on the other.

One of the biggest obstacles to rebuilding Puerto Rico is that as many as half of the island’s homes do not have insurance, while less than 1% of properties are covered by federal flood insurance. While speaking with students in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, insurance expert Ariel Rivera said that because of this lack of coverage, only 720 insurance claims related to Hurricane Maria had been submitted by residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as of January 5th, 2018, resulting in over $1.3 million in advance payments. These numbers stand in stark contrast to the over 32,000 claims Mr. Rivera says were submitted by U.S. citizens over the same time period, and the over $134 million in advance payments survivors received in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in Florida only weeks before Maria hit Puerto Rico.

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Ariel Rivera, owner of Ariel Rivera & Associates Insurance Agency in San Juan, speaks with University at Buffalo Clinic students on Monday, January 23rd at the University of Puerto Rico.

The lack of insurance coverage in Puerto Rico is due in part to the island’s struggling economy, as nearly half of the population was already living below the poverty line before Hurricane Maria hit. However, Mr. Rivera also said that Puerto Rico’s tight-knit family structure and decades of lax building code enforcement at the local level had allowed unregulated construction to flourish, and now more than half of the homes in Puerto Rico are illegally constructed.

Tragically, families living in these homes, often for generations, could not have purchased insurance prior to Maria even if they had the means to do so because their homes were built without the permits from their local municipalities, and were not constructed in accordance with applicable building codes. Without insurance, these families will be forced to rely on the government or charitable organizations to repair or rebuild their homes, making disaster relief from FEMA even more imperative. Unfortunately, our students have seen firsthand the difficulties faced by their fellow citizens who have had claims denied by FEMA or received offers of $1,000 in assistance to rebuild homes that one survivor described as “a complete loss.”

Moving forward, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has “promised to break through entrenched government policies to put people on the path to self-sufficiency,” telling Politico, “We do recognize that the situation is different here than it is in Texas or Florida . . . We want to look at the goals, not the rules.”

For now however, #UBLawResponds student attorneys and staff in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic are busy working alongside organizations like Ayuda Legal Huracan Maria to help survivors appeal unfavorable FEMA decisions, and to provide humanitarian assistance to those who have remained without power and potable water for the past four months. I am proud to be part of this amazing group supporting the work of faculty and students as a librarian; we are working as hard as we can to help our fellow citizens rebuild their homes and lives. You can support our ongoing efforts 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.