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Two Years After Hurricane Maria, Blue Tarps Are Symbol Of Island's Slow Recovery


A blue plastic tarp tacked to the roof of a home means there's construction going on, or at least that's what we tend to associate it with - that it's a temporary kind of situation. But in Puerto Rico, thousands of those tarps have been there for two years. NPR's Adrian Florido explains.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: After Hurricane Maria tore off part of his roof, the only hope Kelvin Melendez (ph) got from FEMA was a blue plastic tarp. Two years later, it's come loose, it's tattered. Every day, he picks up the little pieces scattered across his patio.

KELVIN MELENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The next strong wind is going to destroy it," he says. Sometimes, on windy nights, the sound startles his wife awake. What's that, she asks him.

MELENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "And I tell her, don't get scared. It's just the wind blowing the tarp." Melendez says that after the storm, he spent months seeking help from FEMA, from Puerto Rico's government, from nearby mayors, but nothing.

MELENDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: His is one of the 30,000 or so families the local government estimates are still living under blue tarps two years after Maria. Here in the municipality of Salinas, on the island's southern coast, there are more than 300. People here got so tired of waiting that they formed a construction collective.


FLORIDO: Neighbors helping neighbors repair their homes. Hector Alvarado (ph) and a small team had just torn the blue tarp off of Belkis Mateo's (ph) roof.

HECTOR ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: It was dangling off the back of the house now, and as Mateo looked on, her neighbors installed beams for a new roof.

BELKIS MATEO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She said she was grateful because it's been like this for years.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Alvarado said it's the people themselves who have to rebuild their homes. The government isn't going to do it, he said. The frustration with the government response after the hurricane is a major reason people took to the streets over the summer to force the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello. The political chaos that's followed has made people trust the government even less.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "If we had three governors in one week," Alvarado said, "you can imagine what shape the government's in."

Earlier this month, Governor Wanda Vazquez took her first trip to Washington to try to speed up the flow of billions in promised recovery funds. Soon after returning, she held a ceremony to hand an elderly couple of the keys to a new house.


WANDA VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We know everyone had hoped for a faster response," Vazquez said. She said the visit she made to Washington last week will change things.

ARIADNA GODREAU: I think about the other thousands that are not even having an option because they don't even have the information that they have a chance to maybe access a new house.

FLORIDO: Ariadna Godreau is director of Ayuda Legal PR, a legal advocacy group. She's been sounding alarms about the government's plans for the federal recovery money, including a new program to repair still-damaged homes.

GODREAU: The local department of housing has placed some eligibility criteria that is basically threatening to exclude thousands and thousands of families once again from assistance.

FLORIDO: One rule requires people to prove legal title to their homes. But in Puerto Rico, informal housing is so widespread, which is why FEMA rejected so many people. Another rule says houses in flood zones can't get reconstruction grants. A quarter-million are in flood zones.


GLENDA FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: That's why unless these rules change, many people don't expect to see much help. Back in Salinas, Glenda Flores (ph) is the woman who coordinates the team of neighbors repairing each other's homes. Her own roof still leaks. But after being denied by FEMA, she said she's not asking the government for anything else.

FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "So many of my neighbors appealed three, four, five, six, seven times," she said. "That wears you down."

Flores took me down to a house at the end of her street. The brightly painted walls still stand. But overhead, there's no roof. A little transistor radio sat on the dining room table...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: ...The only piece of furniture the hurricane did not destroy.

FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Volunteers were laying wooden beams overhead. After the hurricane, the owner took her children and left the island. But the two years away have been hard. FEMA rejected her request for help, so she reached out to the collective, said she wanted to move back, and her neighbors said, yes, they'd fix her house.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Salinas, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.