Over a million Puerto Ricans saw their homes heavily damaged or destroyed when Hurricane Maria struck the island, but NPR reports that a majority of them won't qualify for household grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
At least 60 percent of applicants asking FEMA for grants have been rejected because they can't actually prove they owned the home that multiple generations of their families have been living in for nearly a century.
"It's something that has been there forever, and we were just blessed never to have had a hurricane like the one we did," said Fernando Gil Enseñat, Puerto Rico's housing secretary. Hurricane Maria, he said, revealed "all of the flaws" in the island's housing policies dating back to the 1930s and 40s, when modernization policies aimed at industrialization drew people from the mountainous countryside to the cities.
"There were too many people coming down and not enough public housing," Gil said. "So what did they do? Parcels of land that were devoted to agricultural sites, people invaded them and made their communities there. Time passed by, nobody paid attention, and meanwhile mayors or representatives started building roads for them, and connecting them into the utility systems."
Those who have the resources or money to hire a lawyer and produce a sworn affidavit have reportedly been able to obtain grants, but obviously not everyone has the means to do that.
There are clearly limitations here that both FEMA and Puerto Rican authorities are acting under, but it's a near certainty that this Congress won't approve changes or grant the agency more flexibility to adapt to Puerto Rico's unique situation.
Even the recovery funds making their way to the island are coming in the form of loans and dubious financial experiments. It's anyone's guess what will happen when all the bills come due.