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The Disaster Law Project

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Puerto Rico

“These groups are similarly situated, and FEMA has no compelling justification for treating them differently.”

Related imageIn the wake of Superstorm Sandy, FEMA reached out to 144,000 East-coast homeowners whose flood claims were wrongly denied, giving them a second chance to access the recovery help they needed, and were entitled by law to receive.  

We want to know why FEMA won’t do the same for homeowners in Puerto Rico.  

Read our letter to Congress demanding immediate transparency and outreach from FEMA:

“[We] are deeply concerned that FEMA has wrongly denied property repair and replacement assistance to qualified homeowners under its Individuals and Households Program [IHP], which helps low-income survivors meet their basic needs. FEMA has refused to notify individual applicants of the Agency’s error and to clarify the process it will use to review resubmitted benefit applications going forward. Without explanation, FEMA maintains that it will not notify individual homeowners wrongly denied benefits following Hurricane Maria, even though it did notify nearly twice as many individual homeowners wrongly denied insurance payouts following Superstorm Sandy. These groups are similarly situated, and FEMA has no compelling justification for treating them differently.”

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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

There’s Still Time To Apply For Disaster Benefits In Puerto Rico: 5 Things To Know

If you’re in Puerto Rico, you now have until June 18 to apply for disaster benefits.

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This is the second time FEMA extended the filing deadline, giving applicants nearly 9 months to submit a claim. That might seem like a long time, but it makes sense given FEMA’s slow start and lingering recovery roadblocks. FEMA took weeks to open the first Disaster Recovery Center where survivors could apply in person, and widespread power outages made it impossible for people who couldn’t reach a DRC to apply by phone or on-line.
Things are improving, certainly, and FEMA so far has processed about 1.2 million applications for individual and household benefits. But with roughly 150,000 customers still waiting for electricity, it’s impossible to say that everyone’s had a fair opportunity to apply.
FEMA has the authority to extend the deadline again, but my hunch says it won’t. By comparison, FEMA accepted applications for 6 months following Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, but we’re nearing a month past that point already for Hurricane Maria.
Moreover, even if Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rossello, formally requests an extension (which he’d have to before one is granted), FEMA could reject the request if it’s satisfied with the pace of progress and number of applications received between now and then.
So apply as soon as you can – here’s how:

  • On-line at www.disasterassistance.gov;
  • Via phone at 1-800-621-3362 (voice, 711/VRS); 800-462-7585 (TDD); or
  • In person at a Disaster Recovery Center (find one scroll to the bottom of this page).

This FEMA FAQs sheet provides more information, and a video link that walks you through the process of filing and tracking your application. Take a look, but here are five additional tips to keep in mind – offered as info, of course, not actual legal advice:

1. Get help from a lawyer by calling 1-800-310-7029. That’s the number for the Disaster Legal Hotline, a service set up by the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association and their pro-bono partners. Leave your basic info, and they’ll connect you with a lawyer who’s done this kind of thing before. The lawyer can answer questions you have about the application process, work with FEMA on your behalf, and help file an appeal if you’re denied or awarded less than you expected. It’s free for most people who call.

Continue reading “There’s Still Time To Apply For Disaster Benefits In Puerto Rico: 5 Things To Know”

Rossello and Cruz sing different tunes on Puerto Rico recovery. It’s all stagecraft – and it make perfect sense.

A question posted on a FB Disaster group I belong to asked why #PuertoRico governor Ricardo Rossello and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz are sending different messages on the federal recovery effort after Hurricane Maria.  Rossello’s praising FEMA and chumming up with Trump, while Cruz is using the word “genocide” to describe the administration’s incompetence and neglect that is ratcheting up the death toll with each passing day.

Image result for carmen yulin cruz hurricane imagesRossello and Cruz sound worlds apart, but they’re living through the same catastrophe, and I guarantee they’re actually on the same page.  The rest is political stage-craft, and it makes sense.

Here’s an edit of my FB post:

—————

Folks here surely know more about Puerto Rico than I do, but the visuals of Rossello v Cruz right now are a mirror image of Louisiana Gov Kathleen Blanco and NOLA Mayor Ray Nagin post-Katrina.

It’s about two things: money and politics.

Image result for rossello trump hurricane imagesRossello and Cruz have different roles under the Stafford Act, 43 USC 5121, which governs how disaster declarations are made, how much Washington will bill PR for the costs of recovery, and how the money is distributed.

They also have different political constituencies. Rossello represents a mix of urban and rural voters spread across the island. Cruz represents voters in San Juan. His base is broader, both geographically and politically. Her’s is more cohesive.

So Rossello has to dance more closely with the feds than Cruz because he’s the one who makes requests to Washington. He needs to stay in Trump’s good graces to get more money and resources.

Politically, he also wants credit for rescue and recovery efforts that might be taking place in certain areas, in order to maintain voter support in those regions. He wants those voters focused on the progress happening right in front of them, not the lack of progress elsewhere – and certainly not asking why *more* isn’t getting done in their own neighborhoods. If he starts complaining loudly, his constituents might grow impatient and start to change their perspective -folks who are *ok* might start to demand more from the government, and if he can’t deliver he’ll lose their support. He’s already getting hit on social media for everything that’s going wrong, so this is a real risk.

So for Rossello, it’s is all about playing nice and managing expectations.

Cruz on the other hand is one additional step removed from Washington. The money will go to PR first in terms of loans and grants, then trickle down to San Juan. So she has to be nice to Rossello, not Trump, DHS, or FEMA. And as I alluded to above, her constituents are more or less all in the same boat – she doesn’t have to play both sides of the recovery coin.

And in all likelihood, I’d bet their scripts are coordinated. Cruz has been sleeping on a cot for 8 days. Rossello doesn’t want to take the blame for that. He wants Trump to take the hit as much as Cruz does.

 

 

 

 

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