“Nobody comes here to help,” the 19-year-old said.
It’s a well-known lament in a US territory of 3.2 million people, where thousands of homes, roads and recreational areas have yet to be repaired or rebuilt since Maria struck in September 2017. The government has completed just 21% of more than 5,500 official postal hurricane projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that none have started. Only five municipalities report that half of the planned projects for their region have been completed, according to a survey of government data by the Associated Press.
And with Tropical Storm Fiona forecast to hit Puerto Rico on Sunday, possibly as a hurricane, more than 3,600 homes still have torn blue tarpaulin that serves as a makeshift roof.
“That’s unacceptable,” said Cristina Miranda, executive director of the local nonprofit League of Cities. “Five years later, there is still uncertainty.”
Puerto Rico’s governor and Deanne Criswell, head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency who recently visited the island, emphasized that post-hurricane work is underway, but many wonder how long it will take and worry that in the meantime, another devastating storm will strike.
Criswell said officials focused on recovery and emergency repairs for the first three years after Maria. Reconstruction has now begun, she noted, but will take time as authorities want to ensure the structures being built are robust enough to withstand stronger hurricanes projected due to climate change.
“We recognize the concern that the recovery may not seem fast enough five years later,” she said. “Hurricane Maria was a catastrophic event that caused very complex damage.”
The hurricane damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths after shutting down the island’s electrical grid. Crews has only recently begun rebuilding the network with more than $9 billion in federal funds. Power outages and daily blackouts continue throughout the island, damaging appliances and forcing people with chronic health conditions to find workarounds to keep their medications cold.
The slow pace has frustrated many on an island emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.
Some Puerto Ricans have chosen to rebuild themselves rather than wait for government help that they believe will never come.
Osorio, the 19-year-old from Loiza, said her family bought a tarpaulin and zinc panels out of their own pocket and put a new roof on their second floor. But it leaks, so she now lives with her father and grandfather on the first floor.
Meanwhile, in the central region of the island, community leaders who accused the government of ignoring rural areas formed a non-profit organization, who pledged never to experience what they experienced after Maria. They’ve built their own well, opened a community center in an abandoned school, and used their own equipment to repair a keyway. They also opened a medical clinic in April and certified nearly 150 people in emergency response courses.
“That’s what we’re looking for, not to be dependent on anyone,” said Francisco Valentín of the Primary Health Services and Socioeconomic Development Corporation. “We have had to organize ourselves because there is no other option.”
Municipal officials are also tired of waiting for help.
In the southern coastal town of Peñuelas, Mayor Gregory Gonsález said he had requested permission to hire special brigades to repair roads, ditches and other infrastructure. Work will start in mid-September.
It is one of five municipalities where no post-hurricane project has been completed, with a pier, a medical center, a government office and a road that has yet to be repaired. Gonsález said few companies bid because they lack staff, or because they quote a price higher than federal officials have allowed, because inflation drives up material costs.
It’s a frustration shared by Josian Santiago, mayor of the central mountain town of Comerío. He said it is urgent for crews to repair the main road connecting his city to the capital, San Juan, as landslides are increasingly shutting it down. Tropical Storm Earl was blamed for causing eight landslides on Sept. 6, just hours before turning into a hurricane.
“It’s a terrible risk,” Santiago said, adding that engineers recently told him it could take another two years to fix. “Two years?! How much longer do we have to wait?!”
Memories of how much time has passed since Hurricane Maria struck are scattered across Puerto Rico.
Faded red plastic tassels tied around wooden utility poles still leaning to 60 degrees fluttered in the wind as Tropical Storm Earl poured heavy rain over the island in early September.
Norma López, a 56-year-old housewife, has a pole a stone’s throw from her balcony in Loiza, and she annoys her every time she sees it.
“It’s still there. About to fall,” said López, who lost her roof to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again to Maria. “I’m here to survive.”
Virmisa Rivera, 65, who lives nearby, said her roof leaks every time it rains and the laminated walls near her bedroom are permanently soaked.
She said FEMA gave her $1,600 to rent a house while it repaired her roof, but no crews came by. Her boyfriend, who recently passed away, has tried to install zinc panels, but they do not protect against heavy rain.
“My house is falling apart,” she said, adding that the government said it would move her to a new house in a different neighborhood because she can’t fix hers because it’s in a flood zone.
But Rivera fears she will die if she moves: she takes 19 pills a day and uses an oxygen tank daily. Her family lives next door, which gives her security as she now lives alone.
Family is also why Osorio, the 19-year-old, would like to see a roof for the second floor. It is where her mother raised her and her sister before she died. Osorio was 12, so her younger sister was sent to an aunt.
Plywood panels now cover the second-floor windows her mother built by hand with cinder blocks. Here she taught Osorio to make candles and wipes for babies that they used to sell, sitting side by side while Osorio talked about her school day.
“This belongs to my mother,” Osorio said, gesturing to the second floor, “and that’s where I want to live.”