‘How are we not included?’: rural Puerto Ricans struggle to get help after the hurricane Puerto Rico

Six days after Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, Alexiz and Roberto Núñez still don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

The couple, whose home in Arecibo was flooded during the storm, is relying on a neighbor’s cooking and some canned goods delivered by the government to get by.

Núñez woke up to a flooded house the day of the storm, and she stood up only to find the water reaching her waist.

She and her husband saw rescuers from afar and screamed until they were saved. They were later taken to a shelter, and then stayed with their daughter for two days, where the power and water still haven’t come back.

“I’m just grateful I’m alive,” said Alexiz. “My throat hurts a lot from all the screaming.”

Uncertainty over food, drinking water and restoring power is most severe in the areas far from the capital of the island, San Juan.

Residents in the southern and western part of the island of 3.3 million are complaining of feeling ignored in the efforts to bring utilities back to their homes. Roughly 63% of 1.47 million customers remained without power Friday, while more than 358,000 customers remained without water.

US President Joe Biden approved on Wednesday a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico, granting access to emergency individual funds and public assistance for residents affected by the hurricane.

To the people of Puerto Rico who are still reeling from Hurricane Maria 5 years later:
We are with you now and going forward.
And we will get through this together. pic.twitter.com/K3Zzlp9p82

— President Biden (@POTUS) September 23, 2022


To the people of Puerto Rico who are still reeling from Hurricane Maria 5 years later:

We are with you now and going forward.
And we will get through this together. pic.twitter.com/K3Zzlp9p82

— President Biden (@POTUS) September 23, 2022

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) makes individual assistance available to only 55 of the 78 municipalities.

Cabo Rojo, a municipality in southern Puerto Rico that was strongly affected by the storm, was not included in the list.

On top of the hurricane, the southwestern coast of the island is still suffering the damage caused by major earthquakes in 2020. Aid disbursement was delayed after the pandemic began shortly after. Guánica, Lajas and Arecibo, where the Núñezes are from, were also excluded from the list.

Loíza, a town in the north-east of the island that also suffered major flooding, was not included among the towns where individual emergency funding could be granted. Julia Nazario Fuentes expressed her frustration on social media, and reminded people that some communities are still under water.

“There are still people who can’t leave their houses,” said Nazario Fuentes in a tweet on Thursday. “On top of that, they’re leaving out municipalities that suffered damages. Unacceptable!”

Satellite images from space released on Thursday show the metropolitan area in Puerto Rico with the lights on, while much of the island is without power.

Thursday, Sept 22, 2:27AM, Large swaths of Puerto Rico's western and southern coasts are still dark, from Hatillo to Aguadilla and Guayanilla to Cabo Rojo. One million subscribers still do not have electricity. #huracánFiona #LasImagenesNoMienten https://t.co/alMJDsC13H pic.twitter.com/y6G6iqSj4T

— Miguel O. Román (@DrMiguelRoman) September 22, 2022


Some people on social media are calling the efforts to restore power as “metrocentrist”.

According to a report published this week by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Fema discriminated against disabled people, those with low income and those who did not speak English.

The document states that after the category 5 hurricane hit the island, Fema received more than 1.1 million applications for housing assistance in Puerto Rico, but rejected 60% due to problems with the title documentation. The commission emphasized that there are no laws in Puerto Rico that require owners to register their properties.

Five years later, some of the same problems the US territory faced in the aftermath of Hurricane María are reverberating after the category 1 Hurricane Fiona battered the island last Sunday.

People are dying in the aftermath of the latest storm. A 70-year-old man in Arecibo died after his emergency generator exploded on Monday. A woman in San Sebastian was burned to death on Tuesday after a lit candle caused a fire in her home.

Diesel, which runs many generators, including in supermarkets, is also hard to come by, and businesses are scrambling to operate amid the long lines at the gasoline stations and low supply.

A fuel terminal in Yabucoa that supplies gasoline and other fuels throughout Puerto Rico had power restored Thursdayand the government expects fuel distribution to normalize.

“We have food and water for now, but the situation could worsen if the power doesn’t come back soon or if we don’t get diesel,” said Manuel Reyes Alfonso, executive vice-president of the Puerto Rico Chamber for Marketing. and distribution of the food industry, on Friday.

The couple in Arecibo said they weren’t even going to try to go to the supermarket, expecting long lines and limited supplies. They lost their refrigerator during the flood, and find it almost useless to buy any products if they can’t keep them refrigerated.

The Núñezes have removed all the debris from their house, and slept on the floor on Thursday night.

Because of the flooding, a representative of the Department of Housing told the couple their house does not pass inspection and they should start looking for a new home. They were hoping to get assistance from Fema, but they found out on Thursday that Arecibo residents are not included among those entitled to individual assistance, they said.

“As a person who lost everything, affected by the hurricane, how is it possible we’re not included?” said Alexis. “A lot of people in Arecibo lost everything – I’m not the only one.”

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