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Puerto Rico: A Firsthand Account

“Every time it rains it looks like a river pouring into my apartment. I can’t leave because I have nowhere to go.” – Hurricane Maria Survivor


In mid-April, we embarked on a fact finding mission to Puerto Rico with several SBP stakeholders. We wanted to see where SBP could be most effective in establishing a long-term recovery operation for those impacted by Hurricane Maria.

So far, SBP has deployed a total of 18 staff and AmeriCorps members to provide immediate relief, mold remediation services and home repairs—spanning four deployments from October 2017 through April 2018.

“It was such a life changing experience deploying and working in a place so recently affected by disaster,” said AmeriCorps member Izzy Marrier. “The time we spent there was so intense and overpowering.”

Logistically, this was the most feasible way to assist in the recovery process until we could conduct a more comprehensive needs assessment and build relationships with key groups on the ground.

Much of our trip was spent surveying the damage, talking to impacted families and meeting with other local and national disaster relief and recovery organizations including Hope Builders in Vieques, Universidad Sagrado Corazon, Foundation for Puerto Rico, UNIDOS, CONPRMETIDOS and Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust.

We visited areas like the mountainous town of Canovanas to deliver water filtration systems to families in need—which proved to be quite a challenge as the road had been completely washed out.


We visited Villas Palmeras, a neighborhood inside San Juan that has also been severely affected by the Hurricane Maria. We spoke to survivors—families whose homes are still in ruin. They have been locked out—not only from their boarded-up residence, but from access to the very resources that could make them whole again. Initially, more than 60% of FEMA applicants were denied assistance because they were not able to required provide homeownership paperwork. FEMA has changed this requirement but many homeowners are still struggling to receive assistance from FEMA or their homeowner’s insurance.


We went in search of information. What we left with were three very clear takeaways.

1. Hurricane Maria turned a new chapter for the Puerto Rican diaspora

Ask anyone with connections to Puerto Rico and you’ll hear them provide a contextual framework of BEFORE Maria and AFTER Maria—a conversational nuance many believe will exist for a long time. Hurricane Maria caused so much devastation that it required each of the 78 “municipios” (municipalities) to be declared disaster areas. More than the loss of property, people are shaken by the state of things on “La Isla del Encanta” (the island of enchantment)—battered by a storm that left “Borinquen” (the name given to the spirit of the island) almost unrecognizable.

2. Intra-Agency Communication has been a Challenge

We assumed that 8 months into recovery there would be more communication—more organization. That isn’t the case—and sadly so, as the skill, passion and knowledge are already in place. For those assets to be properly used there needs to be centralized, open access to data for those leading the recovery. They need to know where the needs are, to deploy available resources and expedite the process.

3. The People in Puerto Rico are Resilient, but Deserve Better

Puerto Ricans are taking ownership of their own recovery, but that doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye. They need our support, our best practices and most importantly—people willing to continue advocating for them. There’s so much yet to be done and they shouldn’t have to do it alone. They deserve our help.

So, what are we going to do?


SBP will continue to repair homes—opening at least one long-term operating site in Puerto Rico. We will focus our efforts in areas like Yabucoa, Vieques, Barranquitas and Utuado, with a goal of rebuilding and/or repairing 100 homes in the first year.


An effective recovery only happens when shared learning happens. By training other organizations on SBP’s best practices and sharing AmeriCorps members, SBP will help to build the capacity of other rebuilding organizations on the island. We have identified several partner organizations that we will support who are doing great work in areas like Vieques and Yabucoa.


Sixty percent of residents in Puerto Rico were rejected by FEMA. There is a significant need for assistance with appeals. Lack of FEMA funds are a major inhibitor of scaled construction activity. SBP will support residents by helping to shape FEMA appeals.

The primary reason for FEMA rejection is that homeowners cannot prove ownership of their homes. SBP is driving a program that will allow residents to unlock FEMA assistance funds with a notarized affidavit of ownership. Island notaries are scarce and expensive, so we are leveraging a technology that will allow virtual notarization from the mainland for a fraction of the cost. We aim to help 400 residents with this process in the first year.


Puerto Rico has been awarded $18.5 billion, the largest disaster aid package from HUD in U.S. history to address the damage caused by Hurricane Maria. Damage to homes, infrastructure and the economy is extensive. As we have done in several counties and cities in previous disasters, SBP will partner with the government to design programs that elevate outcome and pace to the same level of importance as compliance, and that introduces more resilient approaches to rebuilding.


SBP will continue to advocate for a smarter, more efficient system of disaster recovery by highlighting ways that the recovery in Puerto Rico (and other communities where we work) could be sped up through greater collaboration across agencies to be more accurate and timely.

One example: We’d like FEMA to develop clearer instructions for disaster impacted applicants. A step-by-step, document-by-document approach would be helpful. SBP can work to provide this service ourselves and with partners, but a FEMA partnership would help with the accuracy of messaging and will help increase the success rate of these activities.

The Goal

SBP’s mission is to shrink the time between disaster and recovery. We invest in long-term recovery, to ensure all families get back home. In Puerto Rico, we’ll do this by working directly with Puerto Ricans and other organizations to build capacity, increase impact and help more families get back home.

How You Can Support Us

Our success is made possible by individuals and corporations who partner with us to make swift, large-scale recovery possible.

In the coming months we’ll need volunteers, AmeriCorps members and financial support—both from individuals and corporate partners. Contact us today to learn more about how you can get involved.

Photo Credit:

Jefferson Moran-Morales/Box of Dreamz Photography