Reflections on Serving a Strong People Facing Intricate Fragility, One Year After Hurricane Maria

It’s been a year. Recovering from a disaster like Hurricane Maria was never expected to be complete by now. A Category 4 hurricane, Maria engulfed the Islands of Puerto Rico on the 20th of September 2017, leaving thousands of people dead, many more without IMG_7790the necessities of life, transforming certain ecosystems forever, traumatizing survivors, and changing the Islands of Puerto Rico forevermore. Hurricane Maria lead to heartache and hope, for people on the Islands and those of us watching in solidarity from afar. And on this anniversary, those of us who are very far away but left a part of our hearts there, still are pondering how to assist from here in the years ahead.

Since Maria, in my capacity as a law professor and director of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have been to Puerto Rico five times. I traveled there in December, again for two weeks over January-February, then returned three times in the summer (in June, July, and August). As a lawyer offering pro bono policy and legal service, my presence was not needed immediately after the storm. I got there after some of the worst visible damage was repaired, and the planning for how to help people, communities, and the territory recover began in earnest. As I look back, I arrived as the intricate fragility of Puerto Rico’s new reality was setting in.

IMG_8178Through those trips, I have seen progress in recovery, and gotten to know people of amazing resilience. I have also come to understand the nature of the legal limitations facing the territory. I have puzzled about the legacy of challenging energy and water delivery services and how to encourage real energy, climate justice, and other sustainability. I have witnessed the tough economics of many of those whose families have called the Islands home for generations (as compared to those who visit to play or profit). I have seen the gorgeous ecosystem which has regrown in some ways, but been immutably changed in others. And I have looked into the eyes and heard the stories of some of those who are working for access to true justice.

My two favorite trips were when I had the honor of travelling alongside over a dozen amazing #UBLawResponds-PR student attorneys. With the backing of generous donors and the many extra hours of labor by dedicated staff, these young people worked extremely hard to prepare and serve in the wake of the disaster. The University atIMG_9516 Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinicwas the best of service-learning, offering raw insight into both human needs and human strength. The Clinic showed these soon-to-be attorneys up close what people with legal and policy training can do…and what they can’t do. It left most of them wanting to do more, not only in Puerto Rico, but also for other vulnerable populations.

Yet here we are, a year after Maria struck. In the reports that look back today, we can read and listen to incredibly intense stories. Like the one from NPR exploring how an “unbearable debt crisis, the antiquated power grid and gross political ambition and unreliability were accomplices to the natural disaster.”Or story exploring some personal aftermath published by the New York Times entitled “Sunrise Melodies and Tearful Reflections: Puerto Rico a Year After Maria,” relating the experiences of people “still wrangling with the federal government over money to rebuild their home” and noting that “generosity and the solidarity among neighbors was the only positive remnant of the storm.” Or one ABC affiliate’s video, reporting on a town where #UBLawResponds-PR Student Attorneys assisted with pro bono legal services, in a piece entitled “AccuWeather in Puerto Rico: Hundreds of homes in Loiza still damaged 1 year after Hurricane Maria.”Or a Reuters piece, that relays a heartbreaking truth: “shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island with 150 mile-per-hour winds, and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.” Or the Associate Press story “For Puerto Rico’s poor, hurricane was heavy blow” that tells the story of a man who received seriously insufficient federal aid and has emptied his pension since the storm, and “sees no immediate prospect of moving out of the only habitable space in his home, an enclosed balcony still missing windows from Maria.” Such vivid coverage of the actual storm itself one year ago was only the beginning. Stories of the tragic aftermath and the intricate fragility will continue for years to come.

IMG_9295#UBLawResponds-PR knows firsthand what Puerto Rico is facing, and is continuing to do work with and for Puerto Rico community partners. At this point, our work is primarily in the areas of resilience and energy/climate justice, insurance, and work on behalf of veterans who live there. We are proud of the service we have already done, and remain committed to being of continuing service from Buffalo. We know that, ¡Puerto Rico se levanta! (loosely translated to Puerto Rico stands up (or rises)) … and #UBLawResponds-PR will continue to stand with them.

 

 

The End of the Beginning: #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has just commenced our journey

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For those of you who have followed this blog, you know that in January 2018, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic had an amazing service-learning adventure. After more than five weeks of classwork and preparation starting mid-December 2017 in Buffalo, these students, myself, and other UB staff were ready to travel to Puerto Rico. There we met experts, stood with law students and proficient faculty from University of Puerto Rico’s Law School, worked with other UPR experts, assisted community partners on legal brigades, and gathered on-the-ground data, stories, and experience to help draft papers and reports that we hope will inform ways forward after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

While in Puerto Rico, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys helped local lawyers file over 80 FEMA appeals and provide other legal assistance. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys raised money and purchased supplies and solar lamps for more than 800 families, delivered on multiple humanitarian brigades to strong people in distant places who have been without water, power, and other basic supplies for more than four months. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys met with local experts to plan long-term community-based research projects. You may have read about some of these adventures through Student Attorney blog posts.

What those blog posts may not have made clear, however, is the amazing fact that #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day. They were fierce in their commitment to (but gentle in their delivery of) both access to justice and basic supplies. The dedication of UB’s students made my heart sing (hace latir mi corazón).

I have met with each of these amazing Student Attorneys since our return. To a person, they remain committed to ensuring that the work of this clinic will continue. You will have a chance to read their final papers and reports for this course on this website next month. But that will not be the conclusion of the overall work.

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When this formal course wraps up later this month, it will only be the end of this first chapter. In other words … it will be the end of the beginning.

The mission that the students drafted during our January class has not changed:

Because recovery goes beyond disaster relief, #UBLawResponds provides practical legal research and thoughtful pro bono service, through an ongoing collaborative effort to empower a resilient Puerto Rico.

 

El camino a la restauración va más allá de responder a los efectos de un desastre natural. La misión de la clínica legal de la Universidad del Estado de Nueva York es contribuir al proceso de empoderamiento de Puerto Rico proveyendo servicios de investigación legal gratuitos con aplicaciones prácticas en colaboración con la comunidad puertorriqueña y sus aliados. 

Stay tuned. #PRSeLevanta, #UBLawResponds stands with them.

When Some is Better Than None: FEMA Accountability after Huracán María

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What is accountability, really? We’ve all tossed the word around and heard it used. Usually one hears “accountability” and thinks of “responsibility.” According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, accountability is defined as follows: “the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”[1]

Now what does accountability have to do with Puerto Rico and Hurricane María? This concept of accountability is central to the failures we have seen in Puerto Rico since it was hit by María. The people of Puerto Rico are our brothers and sisters—they are our fellow United States citizens. As a student in the University at Buffalo School of La Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic [ hotlink], I have been looking closely at these issues since December. These people were in need of—and many are still in need of—basic life necessities, like water, shelter, electricity, and food.

Now, here is where the accountability comes in: when a natural disaster affects our country, we have government agencies in place to step up and help our citizens. The main agency responsible for coordinating relief efforts is the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is charged with establishing contracts with vendors to provide needed services: food, water, tarps, electricity. Hurricane María struck the island of Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Now that we are in February 2018, it’s easier to step back and look at the efficacy of our government’s response in helping our fellow citizens. FEMA was responsible for—and should be held accountable for accountable—in securing contracts to help these people.

So, how did FEMA’s response chock up? Unfortunately, not very well, when one looks beyond “official” statistics. The three essential contracts needed immediately in Puerto Rico were all secured with small companies with no proven track record of providing such services—and then the contracts were cancelled before any progress was made. The $30 million contract to provide tarps? Cancelled. The $300 million contract to reconstruct the destroyed electrical infrastructure on the island? Cancelled. The $156 million contract to provide 30 million meals? Cancelled. 2018 is already here and no contracts have been established to replace these services.

But who is accountable for these cancellations—FEMA or the contractors that did not follow through? The accountability lays with FEMA. The agency has drawn large amounts of criticism for hiring new, start-up companies with either proven track records of not being able to fulfill large contracts or no track records at all. Regarding the meals contract, Democrat Elijah Cummings, D-Md., summed up the problem pretty well: “one of the primary reasons FEMA failed to deliver these meals is because it inexplicably awarded a contract worth approximately $156 million to deliver 30 million emergency meals to a tiny, one-person company with a history of struggling with much smaller contracts.”[2] With multiple bids, why would FEMA rely on such unestablished businesses?

And it’s not necessarily fair to fully blame the businesses who took on these contracts for not fulfilling their part of the deal. First of all, FEMA should have picked more appropriate candidates to begin with. Secondly, one has to ask, how committed was FEMA to actually making sure these vital supplies made it to Puerto Rico? According to the owner of Tribute, LLC., the company hired to provide 30 million meals, FEMA cancelled her meals contract over a dispute about providing self-heating meals. Tiffany Brown, the owner of the company claims that she informed FEMA from the beginning that the meals would not be self-heating and the heating packets would be sent along with the meals. Brown claims that she “notified FEMA in [an] Oct. 19 email that 36,000 meals were en route – with the meals packaged separately from the heating component – a FEMA official told her that was not acceptable and told her not to deliver the meals.”[3]

This statement begs the question: wouldn’t 36,000 meals with separate heating packets be better than no meals at all? Apparently FEMA didn’t think so.

The work in Puerto Rico must continue. #UBLawResponds will be joining other legal experts to continue to seek FEMA accountability. You can support our ongoing work here.

 

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability
[2] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fema-contractor-scapegoat-controversy-canceled-contract/story?id=52915221
[3] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fema-contractor-scapegoat-controversy-canceled-contract/story?id=52915221

“Living Without” versus “Being Without” Reflections on How Law and Policy Can’t Immediately Solve Certain Problems (Like No Running Water) But Can Offer Hope

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I spent ten days in January 2018, alongside #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, doing pro bono work in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day on legal brigades, humanitarian brigades, connecting with experts, doing research and writing, and thinking about how we could best serve. This meant we were immersed…but only to a point.

It is hard to describe exactly what is happening on the Islands to those who are not in Puerto Rico. Before I arrived, the students and I had read a lot of media, talked with many people, and done almost all the research we were capable of doing from the mainland. As is true for so many on the mainland, we were saddened by the pictures and descriptions of the devastation, dismayed by some of the response (or lack thereof) efforts by those who should be helping, and worried (about so many things).

As we began our service, the Student Attorneys and I realized that we were providing assistance to people who would be living without some things we take for granted for a long time to come. As visitors (there to serve and work hard, but with a plane ticket home), we approached our service-learning trip with the recognition that sometimes we might have to “do” without as we were working.

To make things affordable, #UBLawResponds rented AirBnB’s for our trip. The first morning of our full day, ironically, neither the student housing nor the housing where I was staying with my children had running water. We had to “do without” as we readied for work. No showers. No flushing toilets. And, of course, we made do. In fact, for most the days I was there, the AirBnB where I was staying with my children had no water for several hours early in the day. We actually got used to “doing without” water for part of the day. We also lost electricity…but we had a generator so we never had to do without power.

By contrast, most individuals and families that #UBLawResponds served were not just doing without temporarily – they were in fact truly living without, and had been for months. Moreover, many had no clear timeframe for when they would have reliable running water again.

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And yet, most of the people we encountered demonstrated hope, shared smiles, and were making do much better than I can imagine I would in their situation. For example, in one town we visited for a brigade, many homes lacked running water…but there was running water in the community center. The shared toilet in that center was sparkling clean and sweetly decorated. People stood politely in line to use it, and were clearly grateful for its presence.

#UBLawResponds gave our team a chance to see what Puerto Rico is really facing, and provide some direct help during our trip. But it also motivated us to dig deeper into our research, to think even more creatively, and to work hard to figure out how we can help suggest some legal and policy changes that can work toward ending this time of semi-permanent “living without” faced by so many fellow citizens in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The #UBLawResponds team is committed to developing and sharing viable policy options going forward. You can help us keep on working for real change by donating here

We are now back in New York, and none of us on the team are forced to do without water. But none of us can forget those who are still living without in Puerto Rico.

Sometimes I Get Angry: Contemplating the Role of Anger in Public Interest Work

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Sometimes, when working in a public interest organization, it can be difficult for me to remain calm. Sometimes I become angry and frustrated. I become angry and frustrated when I see people hurt needlessly. I become angry and frustrated when I see politicians and public figures disregard suffering. When I work with refugees and asylum seekers, I become angry and frustrated when I hear politicians and public figures speak poorly about people who have made the terrible decision to leave their homes.

As a Student Attorney in the University at Buffalo Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have often felt angry and frustrated. The President of the United States has been very clear in his lack of sympathy for Puerto Rico. Many news media outlets are no longer regularly reporting about Hurricane Maria and its impact on Puerto Rico. Government organizations, such as FEMA, have had lackluster responses to the hurricane: sometimes this is because the organization does not have the resources to help the island, but often it appears that a lot of organizations just don’t care that much. Learning how the fact that Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, making many mainland programs unavailable on the island, just adds to the anger and frustration I feel.

Being on the island with the #UBLawResponds team in January 2018, I find that anger isn’t enough of a reason to do the pro bono legal work I do. Anger and frustration is not enough to help anyone. It doesn’t help the people you are trying to advocate for. It doesn’t dismantle harmful policies and laws. It doesn’t change national discourse. It doesn’t change people’s minds. Anger, especially hot-blooded anger that spills over onto other people, usually does not serve a productive purpose.

One possible productive result of anger and frustration is that it sometimes serves as a fuel for yourself. Working in public interest is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting, and sometimes I’ve found that anger can serve as a short-term motivator when I feel like giving up to go work in corporate America. Anger can help me get that extra little bit of emotion to power through when I feel oppressed by the weight of all the work there is to do. However, if the only emotion powering you through public interest work is anger, then you will burn out faster than you would otherwise. So, I put aside my anger and focus again on the work at hand for #UBLawResponds and others continuing to serve those devastated by Hurricane Maria. You can support our continuing work here.

 

Helping Overcome Darkness: Observations on the Creation of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic

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“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”  – Anne Frank

I can remember when the October surprise storm hit Buffalo in October of 2006.  The wet snow came on Thursday, October 12. By Friday, October 13th, there were trees limbs everywhere. We had no power and we were shoveling out snow. It also happened to be the weekend of my wedding. A year of planning and then all I felt was panic that none of it would happen. We were lucky, despite a few small glitches our wedding went on as planned. However, we were without power for 13 days.  Our street was the last to get it back on … those 13 days living on generator power felt like forever.

I cannot imagine that there are people in Puerto Rico who have been living without power for 139 days since Hurricane Maria devastated the island.  Without power – powerless. Absence of light – darkness.

It saddens me to know that the people of Puerto Rico who are citizens of the very same United States of America that I call home would feel such a sense of powerlessness in their own country. That we are not supporting them. That they are living in darkness.

Within days of starting in my new position in the department of Clinical Legal Education, Hurricane Maria hit. Professor Kim Diana Connolly had an idea that seemed crazy and completely impossible to achieve: bring a group of students to Puerto Rico to help with the recovery and provide access to justice to people who need it most in the aftermath of a horrible disaster. The idea of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic was born.

As part of the administrative support team, I did not have time to think about how crazy it was, I just had to get to work. Approvals needed to be gotten, complex paperwork and negotiations had to be completed, donors had to be nurtured and encouraged, students had to be recruited and selected…and the rest of my job responsibilities had to be met!

Fast forward to January 2 and the students who had been selected started class and it was time to make sure that we had everything prepared that they would need when the hit the ground in Puerto Rico. Daily classes for six hours each, coordinating guests and documents and still making arrangements for the trip,… and the rest of my job responsibilities still had to be met!

As I look back at the first few weeks of January, I do not know where all the time went.  It was a whirlwind of working on getting electronics, making reservations for flights, accommodations, meeting space. Then all of the sudden it was January 19 – my last day in the office with Professor Connolly before the group’s departure on January 21.  Business cards printed, polo shirts packed, name badges ready, banners and signage and electronics were ready to go. I felt a sense of pride that the things that I helped to organize and prepare would be just a small part of helping #UBLawResponds and our students drive out some of the darkness. That I was a small part of helping people feel as though they were no longer powerless that they had the tools to begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

We are all just a single candle…. but even just one candle can light up the dark and bring hope. I’m grateful to have had the chance to help our student attorneys and Professor Connolly bring hope, power, and light to Islands inhabited by our fellow citizens. #PuertoRicoselevanta #UBLawRespondsstandswithyou

 

 

 

Moving Beyond “Un Poquito de Español”

04_25_40When I interviewed with Professor Connolly for a position in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic she asked me if I spoke any Spanish. I could tell it wasn’t a deal-breaker if I didn’t, but I couldn’t imagine UB Law helping people recover from the hurricane without it. I told her excitedly that I had been really working on getting fluent … for the last ten years.

I have always regretted letting my proficiency in the language slide after high school, but also never fully gave up. As a result, I’ve spent the last ten years telling people I speak “un poquito de español,” and encouraging them to use it with me – then missing the punchline to all the best jokes.
When I got to Puerto Rico this time I promised myself I would make the most concerted effort I could to learn, practice, and speak the language while here. Full immersion. And doing so has been the most enriching thing about the experience thus far, because it connects me to the people. It feels like the most meaningful thing I could do, to learn their language, and talk about their struggles with them in it. To drop s’s with them and wish one other good luck.

When we arrived at my first “humanitarian brigade,” (providing supplies like solar lamps to those still recovering from Hurricane Maria) I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been told we would travel on-foot through the mountains, giving out whatever supplies we could to these communities, who were both hit the hardest by the hurricane and had the least resources to recover. Although we gave out soap and towels, the most important item were the solar lamps – because, unbelievably, almost every one of the houses we visited was still without power.

Where we were in the mountains most people speak only Spanish, and I wanted to try and use the opportunity to practice with people. But it turns out explaining how a solar lamp works is more complicated than ordering bacalaitos! It was a situation that could have scared me off from communicating, but the #UBLawResponds team encouraged me to embrace the opportunity instead and face my fears. Their support propelled me into practicing enough that I could lead a group of students without knowledge of the language provide supplies to residents all on our own.

I’m certain my grammar was not always correct, and I nodded and smiled through some bits I couldn’t quite catch, but ultimately the connection was made. I can’t begin to describe the warmth and compassion I received from these incredibly resilient people. They applauded my attempt where they could have been frustrated, and together we all understood one another a little better. I came to Puerto Rico with #UBLawResponds to try and help people here feel appreciated, and instead I found myself being offered water from someone who hadn’t had running water since María. The breadth of this island’s resiliency and beauty is unbounded. I am forever grateful.

So, go for it! Puerto Rico needs meaningful help from all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise, and even though many of the citizens speak some English, at least trying to speak with them in their language sets a reverent tone unlike anything else.

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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.

The Forgotten People: Puerto Rico’s Elderly and Disabled After Hurricane Maria

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During my time as a student attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistant Clinic, I have been fortunate enough to be able to go on a few of what we call “humanitarian brigades.” During these brigades, we go into some of the more impoverished communities that have been impacted by Hurricane Maria. The communities of Arroyo and Maunabo that I visited are still dealing with the loss of power four months later, and some houses are still without water. When we go on these brigades our goal is simple: bring some essential goods and solar lamps directly to people’s homes. Though through the course of the brigades I have been invited into many homes and discovered a population that has been forgotten by much of society… the elderly and disabled.

The hurricane has created hardships in every community, with the loss of homes, electricity, water, and lives. The one population that has been struggling more than others on the road to recovery are the elderly and disabled. These individuals were having difficulties caring for themselves before the disaster, and now months later have to continue that struggle through conditions of high temperatures, darkness and filth. I have met some amazing people who are doing all they can to care for elderly and disabled friends and neighbors unable to care for themselves either physically or financially. These self-assumed caregivers have kept this population alive, but with such high poverty in the communities, caring for others can come at a cost to oneself. Our community liaisons during the brigades have been wonderful in pointing out the elderly and disabled within a community who have the highest level of need, but we can only provide so much. The problem of appropriate care will be an ongoing issue.

The humanitarian work we have done has been truly rewarding, and an emotional rollercoaster at times. There was one visit in particular where an elderly woman was bedridden and being taken care of by her neighbor. We provided a solar lamp, soap, adult diapers and baby wipes, but it was the sight of a towel that made the caregiver instantly start crying. We rushed to grab some more towels for them, and while these towels were exactly what they needed, she kept crying because she was amazed that we cared. It is so easy during this work to have a sense of guilt or helplessness because we want to do so much more for these people, but in that moment I knew that we had done good by showing the communities that we cared, and showing the elderly and disabled that they were not forgotten.

The #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has provided student attorneys with a unique opportunity to speak directly to the individuals impacted and discover the needs they have that aren’t being identified. We have heard stories of people being found sick and alone in their beds because their caregivers left the island, and people dying on hospital steps because they were unable to make it there before the hospital closed. These stories describe a larger issue of how people care for the elderly and disabled when they are barely able to care for themselves. The Puerto Ricans I have met who are caring for them are giving all they can, but they shouldn’t have to. There needs to be a way for the communities and government to respond to these particular needs, so that this population receives appropriate care again, and people stop dying due to hurricane-related issues.

#UBLawResponds has been fortunate enough to receive donations, which have made providing the goods during the humanitarian brigades possible. We are always looking to provide more humanitarian support, which requires more resources, so I ask that you consider donating  to directly impact the people we serve. If you are unable to donate, then I would ask that you take some time to consider the people in your own life that might need support, and see how you can serve in your own communities.

 

Paying Rent Under a Blue Roof: Landlord Tenant Law in Puerto Rico after Maria

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Imagine experiencing a hurricane: you are terrified for your own safety, that of your loved ones, your property. You’re concerned about basic survival: life becomes a lot harder when you have no electricity and no cell phone signal. The place you are employed may be temporarily or permanently closed—you’ve also lost your income. But, for many tenants in Puerto Rico, their concerns don’t end there.

Add to all your other concerns the fact that the property that you pay to live in has been seriously damaged by the hurricane. You’re living under a “blue roof” (a tarp); chances are your landlord is in a tough financial situation after the hurricane as well and cannot afford to make such a huge repair or is waiting to get help from his insurance or possibly FEMA. Now you’re in a tough position: living under a blue roof, you’re still expected to pay your rent.

Some readers may simply think: if your landlord’s not willing to get the job done, then just move. But, regardless of whether you rent a home or own a home, it’s important to never forget that the place you live is still your home.

It’s hard to define the idea of home. Habitat for Humanity did it’s best to try to define “home.” It asked the people that it helps provide with houses what they consider to be home and found that “the common thread binding each family was that each home became these families’ base for everything: faith, hope, family, school, fellowship, even future struggles and conquests.”

Home is your safe place, your place of refuge. What an awful thing to lose, but it’s a common loss as a result of natural disasters. So, in the case that you cannot afford to move, do not have the energy to move, or simply don’t want to move, it’s important to know your rights.

As a #UBLawResponds student in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have done research to help tenants know their rights. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most important things to know about your rights as a tenant in Puerto Rico.

If repairs are needed, you have to notify your landlord. 31 L.P.R.A. § 4056         

Your landlord is responsible to make such repairs within a reasonable amount of time and to maintain the property in the same condition as you rented it. If such repairs take more than 40 days, your rent should be reduced. 31 L.P.R.A. § 4051, 31 L.P.R.A. § 4055.

Your landlord cannot evict you without formal court proceedings. The landlord has to fill out all of the necessary paperwork and take you to court. 32 L.P.R.A.

Unfortunately, you cannot force a landlord to do anything. But, it is always better to know your basic tenant rights in this situation; it’s one less thing to worry about trying to figure out. And while it is hard to leave a place you consider home, don’t ever forget how strong you are—you survived a hurricane. You have the strength to make a new place your home.