US & World

Worry and confusion as Puerto Ricans scramble to apply for FEMA aid

Coordinator Ariadna Godreau explains to a group of lawyers and law students how to help hurricane survivors fill out FEMA forms. The volunteers met in front of a Home Depot in San Juan.
Coordinator Ariadna Godreau explains to a group of lawyers and law students how to help hurricane survivors fill out FEMA forms. The volunteers met in front of a Home Depot in San Juan.
/Angel Valentin for NPR

Across Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of people affected by Hurricane Maria are scrambling to apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For many, it has been a stressful and confusing process. Power and phone lines are down, which makes it nearly impossible for residents to fill out the online form or call the FEMA hotline to ask questions or follow up on the status of their application.

Take the case of Ana Ramos. Hurricane Maria destroyed her little green cottage on the beach. The front of the house is leaning treacherously inward, and one side of the roof was ripped right off.

"This was my mother's house," says Ramos, 58. She starts to cry, dabbing her tears with a white handkerchief. "It's very important to me."

It will take thousands of dollars to fix the damage — money that Ramos and her husband, Jeff Rearden, 53, both retirees, don't have. They're hoping that aid from FEMA can help pay for it.

Except there is one huge problem: The person who holds the deed — and the person who needs to fill out the form — is an elderly aunt who lives in Connecticut. Since the storm hit five weeks ago, they haven't been able to get hold of her.

These are the kinds of legal issues that pop up over and over again and can complicate filling out FEMA's form. Answer one question incorrectly and an applicant's chances of getting the full aid amount could be jeopardized.

FEMA acknowledges that it has been a challenge for Hurricane Maria survivors to register. But according to a FEMA spokesperson, the agency is finding "innovative and creative ways" to reach people in isolated communities. That includes sending teams out to the field and signing people up with pen and paper.

As of last week, FEMA says it has registered nearly 800,000 individuals in Puerto Rico. Still, countless others in rural and hard-to-reach locations need help filling out the form before the Nov. 30 deadline.

That is why groups like Hurricane Maria Legal Assistance are taking matters into their own hands. Over the past few weeks, a team of Puerto Rican volunteers — lawyers, law professors and law students — have been traveling across the island. They answer tricky legal questions, clear up misconceptions, and follow up on existing applications. Mostly, they manually fill out FEMA forms on behalf of the survivors.

For many Puerto Ricans, federal aid will be the best way to access the large sums of money they need to pay for costly repairs. "This is the only way most of these people will get any resources to build back their lives after the hurricane," says Adi Martinez-Roman, the executive director of the Foundation Fund for Access to Justice in Puerto Rico. "Regular welfare and aid does not begin to cover what the needs are after the disaster."

If eligible, disaster survivors can receive up to $33,000 from FEMA in financial aid. They can also apply for up to $200,000 in low-interest loans to rebuild their homes through the Small Business Administration — regardless of whether they're business owners.

Last Saturday, Martinez-Roman and about 15 volunteers from Hurricane Maria Legal Assistance gathered at the parking lot in front of a Home Depot in San Juan. The group met to caravan to a beach town in the south called Maunabo. They had heard that the storm had damaged the homes pretty bad, and FEMA officials haven't reached everyone there.

In the parking lot, Ariadna Godreau, 32, who is leading the group, goes over the plan: Get as many people as possible to fill out the FEMA application. But first, make sure they sign the release form, because they're sharing confidential information.

The young volunteers are excited. Many of them are first-timers. "I decided to do something to help people that combines what I study and what's going on," says Jose Ocasio, 26, a third-year law student at the University of Puerto Rico.

The law professors beam with pride. "They will be great lawyers someday," says Erika Fontanez, who teaches at the university.

By the time the caravan arrives to Maunabo, the group is two hours late. Traffic was bad. Still, more than 100 residents from the beach town have been patiently waiting at the meeting point, an open-air basketball court with a magnificent view of the ocean and a light breeze coming through the chain-link fence.

Seated on the concrete bleachers, almost everyone has some kind of paper or notepad in their hands. They've already jotted down notes – scraps of information swapped by friends and neighbors, questions they hope to ask the volunteers.

Dionisio Cruz, 70, came to apply for FEMA aid. Maria destroyed his fence, tool shed and windows, and no officials have come. "I have been repairing everything with my own money," he says. "I would like to solicit some type of loan or something in order to finish repairing everything completely."

Some were there just to stay informed. Half a dozen nuns in white from a convent called Hermanas Dominicas de Fatima sat in the bleachers. "We are here to be oriented to help others in our parish," says one of the sisters, holding a notebook and pen. "We are not asking for help."

The volunteers mobilize. They arrange chairs in pairs, creating mini meeting spaces. Then they divide the crowd in two: those who have applied for FEMA already but have not heard back, and those who have not completed a form yet. It's about an even split.

Before the line starts moving, there are a few announcements. "One of the things we're going to do today is clarify lots of myths that are roaming around," says volunteer Gabriela Camacho. "One is the famous $500 form."

Residents heard that if you fill it out, you could get emergency money from the government in the mail. But Camacho explains the form is much more than that. It's the form to receive federal aid. If they are qualified for it, it's the right of Puerto Ricans to obtain, she says.

Camacho also heard that some people were told not to move the debris, but that is incorrect, she tells the crowd. Clean up the debris and damage as best as you can, take photos, get it repaired and hold onto the receipts, she says.

The volunteers get through the line in about two hours. They sign people up a dozen at a time. The residents sit and wait for their turn in the bleachers, and when they hear their names called, they hurry over.

Ramos, whose house was destroyed, came to the basketball court to see how the volunteers could help. Unsure of whether she would ever hear back from her aunt, she applied for FEMA as a renter a few weeks ago.

Without the property deed, she won't be eligible to receive funding to repair the property damage caused by Maria. Instead, she could receive funds to replace furniture and appliances. Has FEMA received her application?

The volunteers didn't know. But they took down Ramos' information and promised they would follow up for her.

For now, the young lawyers and law students will head back to San Juan. One by one, they'll type in the Maunabo residents' information into FEMA's online form, then print out the confirmation numbers. Next week, they'll return to distribute them to the applicants for their records. They'll drop them off to a neighbor, who lives in front of the basketball court, for residents to pick up.

Then, it's more waiting. Waiting for FEMA to come and do an inspection of their homes.

For Rearden and Ramos, the whole process has been overwhelming. Rearden leans against the bright orange concrete wall of the house next door. It's his brother-in-law's house, where he and Ramos have been staying since the storm.

Rearden glances over to the mess on the other side. Ten years ago, he renovated that little green beach cottage himself, with power tools that are rusting underneath a piece of plywood outside the house. "This place was a dream come true for us," he says.

His wife looks at him and says, "We just want to keep living here."

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