A year after deadly Maria, U.S. housing funds on way to Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN (Reuters) - A year after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico with 150 mile-per-hour (241 kph) winds, government officials on Thursday announced that about $1.5 billion in federal funds aimed primarily at rebuilding housing will start flowing to the island.

“One year (after the event) is quite good for what we generally do,” U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson said. HUD allocated the funds in February.

An additional $18.5 billion for the island was approved by the federal agency in March, but the process to disburse this allocation has yet to finish.

“It’s a day of solace. It’s a day of remembrance,” said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, adding: “we can honor victims” by rebuilding stronger and more resilient infrastructure.

Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth, and Rossello has said the island’s government initially underestimated the death toll, putting it at 64. In August, a study by George Washington University lifted that to nearly 3,000. Shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.

U.S. President Donald Trump has refused to accept the higher death estimate, and continues to joust with many local officials and critics who blasted the federal response to the storm. Trump has called his administration’s emergency response to Maria an “unsung success” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.”

“If he calls a success or an unsung success 3,000 people dying by his watch, definitely he doesn’t know what success is,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a Trump critic, told Reuters during a recent interview.

Trump has said “3000 people did not die” following Hurricane Maria, disputing the George Washington study estimating the storm killed 2,975 people directly or indirectly from September 2017 through mid-February. The exact toll is unknown.

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Carson, asked about the federal response to Maria, told Reuters the government “responded quickly,” yet conceded “there were things that could have been better.”

He said the “real issue” is rebuilding and giving Puerto Rico a more resilient infrastructure, steps that are “a lot more productive than arguing about the number” of dead.

HUD’s allocation will mostly be used to fix homes; help residents obtain title deeds needed to qualify for federal aid; and to relocate at-risk communities, the governor said.

For Carson, the disbursement of HUD funds “paves the way for a speedy, long-term recovery,” but he warned that the “path forward is challenging, and will be measured not in months, but rather in years.”

Florida Governor Rick Scott, in San Juan to attend the memorial event “One Year After Maria,” which was sponsored by the local government, told Reuters he disagrees with Trump’s comment on Maria’s death toll, and vowed to continue helping Puerto Rico.

The storm knocked out power and communications to virtually all of island’s 3.2 million residents, while destroying the homes of thousands.

Even before the Category-4 storm hit, Puerto Rico was financially bankrupt with $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities it cannot pay. A year after Maria, the island is far from prepared for the next big storm, with an ever-fragile power grid, damaged infrastructure and the same crippling debt.

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More than 200,000 people left the island after the storm, mostly to the U.S. mainland, according to government data.

There are still some 45,000 homes with so-called “blue roofs,” or tarps installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The San Juan mayor has noted that the island has seen only a fraction of almost $50 billion in recovery funds Congress approved, including the $20 billion in HUD funds.

“Most of the people that have requested help from FEMA ... have not received enough assistance to be able to take care of their problems,” Mayor Cruz said, adding that “a lot of people that don’t have a title deed and they really are not eligible to receive any type of support or help.”

The recovery process has also seen hundreds of community-driven efforts. During a forum held on Wednesday by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Journalism, community leaders urged for a multisectoral approach to the recovery, rather than a government-only-led effort, which has proven slow and full of missteps.

“We lost people, roofs and houses, but our community worked hard to get back on its feet,” said Wilfredo Lopez, a community leader of the Sonadora neighborhood in Aguas Buenas, which had disaster-trained residents and its own protocols in place before the storm hit.

Reporting By Luis Valentin Ortiz; Editing by Daniel Bases and David Gregorio