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Op-Ed: Rattled but not broken, working together to help P.R. recover

On Dec. 28, an earthquake rattled Puerto Rico’s southwest coast, destroying homes and cultural treasures. Unfortunately, it was just a precursor to a magnitude 6.4 temblor that struck the same area on Jan. 7.

The government of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Bureau, their supporting government agencies and local community leaders immediately began a coordinated effort to help the earthquake survivors.

Twenty-four shelters and base camps were opened in a dozen municipalities and, at their peak, supported tens of thousands of survivors. By mid-February, four base camps, operated by the government of Puerto Rico, remained open, offering food, shelter, counseling and influenza vaccinations.

The government of Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its federal and local partners have teamed up to help the island through its recovery from the earthquake damage.

The efforts are focused in the designated municipalities of Adjuntas, Arecibo, Cabo Rojo, Ciales, Corozal, Guánica, Guayanilla, Hormigueros, Jayuya, Juana Díaz, Lajas, Lares, Las Marías, Maricao, Mayagüez, Morovis, Orocovis, Peñuelas, Ponce, Sabana Grande, San Germán, San Sebastián, Utuado, Villalba and Yauco.

Under the major disaster declaration, the 25 municipalities in southwest Puerto Rico were approved for FEMA’s Individual Assistance program. The program allows eligible survivors to get reimbursed toward repair and replacement expenses necessary after the earthquake. The program also provides assistance for essential personal property.

As of Feb. 15, nearly $16 million was approved to assist 27,924 FEMA applicants. The funding covers temporary housing assistance, basic home repairs and other needs not covered by the survivors’ insurance policies.

While FEMA’s Individual Assistance program is a powerful tool to jump-start Puerto Rico’s recovery, the efforts are not limited only to assistance programs. The hard work taking place in cooperation with the government of Puerto Rico supports diverse community initiatives that seek to help survivors of the earthquake.

During the initial response efforts, leaders in different communities such as the municipality of Yauco provided water, ice and clothing for up to 500 survivors daily. Other voluntary agencies visited homes in the earthquake region to check on the residents’ well-being while nonprofit organizations donated thousands of lunches and dinners. Tents installed in parks served as temporary classrooms to re-establish the education of the children while the schools are rebuilt.

To holistically address residents’ emotional and spiritual wellness, numerous municipal leaders, faith-based partners and voluntary organizations pitched in to help individuals and communities in their recovery. These organizations also provided food, temporary shelter, crisis counseling and free legal information.

As FEMA begins to shift its focus to the island’s long-term recovery efforts, the agency sees survivors steadily leaving base camps and shelters. They are returning home or moving into transitional housing organized by the Housing Department and FEMA’s various housing programs ranging from rental assistance to Transitional Sheltering Assistance, or TSA.

Rental assistance is available to qualified survivors living in the 25 designated municipalities; TSA targets eligible recipients in Guánica, Guayanilla, Peñuelas, Ponce, San Germán and Yauco.

Additionally, the U.S. Small Business Administration offers low-interest disaster loans to help survivors put their lives back together and return to the comfort of their homes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers both loan and grant programs to qualified low-income applicants that can be used in combination with FEMA assistance.

With guidance from FEMA disability integration, advisors support Puerto Rico communities as they learn to repair and rebuild with a mind toward accessibility for all.

Under FEMA’s Public Assistance program, the primary source of assistance for essential government agencies, public institutions and certain private nonprofits, the Government of Puerto Rico has been working with FEMA to ensure applicants accurately assess and document damage to schools, buildings and other critical infrastructure.

The municipalities of Adjuntas, Guánica, Guayanilla, Jayuya, Juana Díaz, Lajas, Las Marías, Mayagüez, Peñuelas, Ponce, Sabana Grande, San Germán, Utuado and Yauco.

are eligible for federal reimbursement for eligible earthquake-related expenses. This can include debris removal and emergency protective measures that safeguard life, public health and safety.

Not to be forgotten, as survivors begin to repair their homes, preparing homes and businesses for the disasters to come is key in recovery. The U.S. Geological Survey recently released its long-term forecast for seismic activity in Puerto Rico. USGS experts estimated that aftershocks from the magnitude 6.4 earthquake will persist for years to come, although with decreasing frequency.

To support those rebuilding efforts, FEMA’s hazard mitigation specialists are visiting home-improvement stores in the affected municipalities to share home safety and do-it-yourself construction advice.

During one of the aftershocks, one of Puerto Rico’s natural wonders, a stone arch carved over centuries by the ocean’s waves, collapsed into the Caribbean Sea.

While the loss of the iconic symbol known as Punta Ventana, or “Window Point,” is but a treasured memory, it cannot erase the beauty of this Island of Enchantment.

Recovery highlights as of Feb. 15:

  • Nearly $16 million was approved under FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program for home repair and personal property expenses;
  • Rental assistance was provided to 5,275 residents in the amount of $4.6 million;
  • As of Feb. 13, the U.S. Small Business Administration approved seven low-interest disaster loans for businesses and 87 loans for homeowners and renters for a total of $2.5 million; and,
  • FEMA’s disaster recovery centers in Guánica, Guayanilla, Peñuelas, Ponce, Utuado, Villalba and Yauco have assisted nearly 11,000 survivors. 

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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