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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Hurricane Maria ripped away part of the steel roof from Carmen Lidia Torres Mercado's home in the Puerto Rican capital. Nine months later, she is still relying on a blue plastic tarp to protect her home, even with a new storm season already two weeks old.
Torres points out where rain seeps into the bedroom of her small house in a San Juan neighborhood known as Barriada Figueroa, where the narrow streets surged with floodwaters during the Sept. 20 storm. But the 60-year-old retiree says she has no money to fix it on her own and doesn't have the documents proving home ownership that she needs to qualify for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"In truth, this isn't a suitable place to live," Torres said in an interview at her home on a recent morning.
There are thousands of people in similar circumstances across Puerto Rico nearly nine months since the most devastating storm to strike the island in decades. Blue tarps or sturdier plastic sheets installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are still widely visible around the island, though FEMA and local government agencies say they can't say for certain how many roofs still need to be replaced.
Many people lack insurance or other resources to rebuild on their own. While the U.S. and Puerto Rican government have helped with grants and loans, they haven't been enough on an island where nearly half the people live in poverty.
Some are renters like Gabriel Figueroa, a self-employed handyman in San Juan, who said the owner of the house moved to the U.S. and hasn't bothered to replace the roof panels that were blown away in the storm. He's saving up the $2,000 he needs to do it himself, but isn't there yet.
"I don't want to wait much longer," he said. "I have kids and I have to protect them."
There has been significant progress in recovery in general. Power, water and cellphone service have been restored to more than 95 percent of Puerto Ricans. Businesses are operating and the roads are no longer free-for-alls now that many traffic lights are working again. There are signs of economic recovery, with the government reporting last week that unemployment for May was 9.6 percent, the lowest level in almost 30 years.
But housing remains a challenge. Mayor Rafael Surillo of Yabucoa, the small southeastern town near where Maria made landfall, said at least 800 homes there still have temporary roofs in need of replacement. The San Juan's mayor's office says there are at least 2,000 in the capital, several thousand more in the metropolitan area.
So many temporary roofs remain, Surillo said, because people either can't qualify for loans or grants — often because they don't have the titles to their property or are missing documents — or the amount of assistance they can get isn't enough to cover the cost of repairs. Local officials have been working with people to secure new property title documents, but it has been difficult.
"The reconstruction has been extremely slow, dangerously slow," Surillo said.
FEMA, which was accepting initial applications for assistance through Monday, has had a visible presence on the island, distributing 126,000 blue tarps and coordinating the installation of sturdier, but still temporary, blue plastic sheets by the Corps of Engineers on nearly 60,000 homes. The agency said it has approved 457,000 applications for individual assistance, totaling $1.3 billion.
The federal agency, however, is not set up as a replacement for homeowner's insurance, which a significant portion of Puerto Rico lacks. Spokeswoman Jo Ann Diaz said FEMA can't make people whole despite expectations to the contrary. "We help you until you are on the road to recovery," she said.
That reality has slowly sunk in across Puerto Rico. Doris Colon and Felix Marquez, an elderly retired couple in Catano, west of San Juan, said they received $500 from FEMA but needed much more after Maria tore off part of their roof, leaving the house exposed to days of punishing rain that damaged appliances, furniture and the floors of their small home.
"If only FEMA would have given something more, I could have called somebody to help me," the 75-year-old Colon said, noting that the family got additional help from the Puerto Rican government and a non-governmental organization that normally works in Africa.
Others in their neighborhood had similar experiences. Dilma Gonzalez, 47, said she received $132 from FEMA, for damage to her roof and kitchen that a contractor said would cost at least $6,000 to repair. She had no insurance and hasn't worked since the storm.
"I'm worried because it's already storm season and one little wind will take it all away," she said, gesturing at her house as she chatted with neighbors on the street.
Angel Santos Rivera was among the tens of thousands of FEMA applicants who got no assistance at all. The 75-year-old said he could neither read nor write, but he passed on a letter from the agency stating that he was ineligible for assistance because he could not provide sufficient proof that he owns the home where he has lived for 40 years. Upstairs, he brought out a battered file folder with the property title, missing all the pages but the one with his notarized signature. He shrugged as he talked in the shade of his balcony, the light tinged blue from the plastic sheet that protects him from the sun and rain.
"It's in God's hands," Rivera said. "There's nothing you can do."