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Thousands in Puerto Rico Wrongly Denied FEMA Aid: We’re Working to Fix That

Isamar holds her nine-month-old baby at their makeshift home in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, on December 23rd, 2017.

More than 75,000 low-income homeowners in Puerto Rico are still waiting for help to rebuild their homes, more than a year after Hurricane Maria swept the island. FEMA initially rejected their application for benefits because these applicants did not present a registered certificate of title to prove they owned the damaged property.

But these applicants did own their home under Puerto Rico law. They either acquired it through inheritance, or through a process of “prescription,” which typically involves someone making use of an abandoned building or land. Puerto Rico doesn’t require this type of property to be registered in order to establish ownership.

FEMA denied them anyway.

Thanks to the work of local advocates, FEMA finally agreed that these applicants should have been recognized as property owners all along, and will allow them to re-apply for benefits using a “Sworn Declaration” to verify ownership. But because FEMA has refused to notify individual applicants of these new developments, thousands of homeowners may never know their benefits were wrongly denied, and will continue to lose out on critical recovery assistance they are entitled by law to receive.

What we want is simple: FEMA must notify individual applicants that their benefits were denied due to the Agency’s mistake, and give them a meaningful opportunity to reapply. By one count, that’s about 77,000 homeowners. We know FEMA can do this, because it’s done it before.

Between 2012 and 2015, thousands of homeowners on the East-coast were wrongly denied insurance payouts following Superstorm Sandy. FEMA set up a claims review process to make things right, and notified 144,000 individual homeowners of the opportunity to participate in that process. That’s about twice the number of applicants wrongly denied benefits in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. If FEMA can reach out to individual homeowners on the East-coast, why can’t it reach out to similarly situated homeowners in Puerto Rico? We’ve yet to hear a compelling reason.

We’ll continue to work with organizations like Fundacion Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, and others, until this problem is solved. In our Letter to Congress delivered on Monday, members of the NLIHC’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition asked for legislative oversight to ensure that FEMA is properly administering the nation’s disaster recovery program, and affording all hurricane survivors, wherever the storm strikes, to effective and equal treatment.

– Kathleen Bergin

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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