FEMA Has Rejected 60 Percent of Assistance Requests in Puerto Rico. Why?

Reports from lawyers on the ground suggest the organization was ill-equipped to actually handle the devastation it found.

Community members walk on the street in a devastated section nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on Oct. 10, 2017, in Pellejas, Adjuntas municipality, Puerto Rico.
Community members walk on the street in a devastated section nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on Oct. 10, 2017, in Pellejas, Adjuntas municipality, Puerto Rico. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Many Puerto Ricans have a jaundiced view of the federal response to Hurricane Maria: Federal aid was slow to materialize compared with aid to Texas, and President Trump appeared at times glib and dismissive of the island’s plight. High on the ledger of residents’ catalog of grievances is the hefty number of people who have been rebuffed for repair grants from FEMA: In March, lawyers and community groups said that the agency had denied about 60 percent of household applications in Puerto Rico, often because families could not prove ownership of their homes.

FEMA’s denial rate for individual assistance is always high— about 30 percent of Texans were rejected for Harvey-related requests by January. But as of March, FEMA grant denials in Puerto Rico after Maria nearly double that number. In a series of interviews, lawyers and residents told me that FEMA presided over a poorly managed process that failed to account for the island’s unique customs.

In the early days of the disaster response, FEMA’s appraisal efforts were flanked by errors. Contract inspectors assessing property damage on the island had limited Spanish-speaking ability and struggled in an unfamiliar terrain. Puerto Ricans living in remote mountainous regions waited months for FEMA assessors to arrive. The application process itself was taxing for residents—without working cellphones and internet access, merely asking for help was a hurdle.

Veronica Gonzalez, a lawyer who assisted residents claiming aid, characterized the initial response as poorly tailored to the island: “Inspectors would arrive unannounced and unidentified,” she says. Because of Spanish-language limitations, they “sometimes couldn’t explain to people why they were there.”

But even as those problems eased, another issue persisted: residents’ inability to produce deeds showing home ownership. In the aftermath of a hurricane, when people lose their homes, they also tend to lose bank documents and housing deeds that were stored in those homes. As a condition of approval for individual assistance, lawyers told me that FEMA often insisted on formal proof of title that was unworkable.

FEMA’s demand for proof of ownership was also an insurmountable barrier for thousands of Puerto Ricans who live in informal settlements: sprawling cliques of houses clustered in rural areas outside San Juan and in coastal stretches bordering the capital city. And Puerto Rico maintains property traditions that are distinct from the mainland—homes and land are often inherited without a formal transfer of title or deed.

Accordingly, only about 65 percent of properties on the island are officially registered with the government in the first place. And many unregistered homes were seriously damaged or destroyed in Maria’s wake.

As concerns mounted, FEMA took steps to lessen documentation requirements, including considering sworn affidavits from people without deeds. But several lawyers who spoke to me say that the change occurred late in the game, and that some applications bolstered by affidavits are still getting denied. Natasha Bannan, an attorney with LatinoJustice, an organization that helped to coordinate a behemoth effort to provide legal assistance to Puerto Ricans seeking aid after Maria, offered a frank assessment of FEMA’s performance: “It was wholly inadequate,” she said.  “It’s been a really piecemeal approach to systemic issues.”

Locals I spoke with argue that the next time a disaster hits Puerto Rico, FEMA should ease documentation requirements from the start, hire locals more quickly, and train staff so that information is accessible and standards are applied consistently.

Several lawyers on the island told me that declarative statements signed under penalty of perjury should count toward meeting FEMA’s standards to show occupancy in addition to notarized affidavits. And my conversations with residents yielded a common refrain: FEMA should offer a way to apply for aid unshackled from internet or phone access in a sustained power outage. Spanish-speaking staff must fan out through the island early, helping people to fill out applications and assisting with inspections.

Still, residents say that the size of the federal grants FEMA typically gives out in many cases isn’t sufficient to address their pleas for succor. FEMA’s average award in Puerto Rico is just a few thousand dollars, a fraction of the agency’s upper limit for grants under the program.

The last day for Puerto Ricans affected by Maria to register to apply for individual disaster assistance from FEMA is Monday, June 18.