For decades, Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory has been a source of political, social, and economic conflict on the island. The 3.5 million American citizens who reside there have no voting representation in Congress.
Now Puerto Rico is fighting for its survival in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in September 2017.
Maria was the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 90 years. More than 1,000 people died from the storm and its aftermath. It cut a path straight across the island, destroyed 70,000 homes and left at least 250,000 homes badly damaged.
Krystal Torres and her daughters lost everything in the storm. Their house – like tens of thousands of others – was flattened, so they have had to rent a room in a neighbour’s house.
“It fell apart completely. Everything was lost … every time I look at the spot where my house was – many nights I have stopped there to cry,” Krystal says. She wants to “continue buying things, little by little, until we can at least rebuild the floor.”
Rebuilding housing is projected to be the most expensive part of reconstruction, mounting more costs on top of an already staggering debt crisis.
What’s more, roughly half of Puerto Rican housing is considered “informal” – homes built without a permit, and often not to code. These low-income communities were the hardest hit by the storm.
The main challenges to rebuild are the level of investment, political will, and the significant time needed to formalise and improve infrastructure in these neighbourhoods – a task that has been neglected for generations.
“The members of Congress do not think of Puerto Rico as a part of their constituency and responsibility, and that is what is underneath this crisis,” says Ana Maria Archila from the Center for Popular Democracy. “It is a crisis of democracy as much as it’s a climate crisis, as much as it’s an economic crisis.”
With the next Atlantic Hurricane season due to start again soon, the island’s most vulnerable communities – still recovering from the storm of the century – feel they are on their own.
Fault Lines went to investigate how Puerto Ricans are coping six months after Hurricane Maria and why some of the island’s poorest residents are being denied federal aid to rebuild.
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