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The Disaster Law Project

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Hurricane Maria

“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”

TPS for Caribbean Immigrants After the Hurricanes

Under US immigration law, Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, allows undocumented immigrants to remain in the country for a period of time without being deported.  It applies when conditions in a receiving country are too dangerous to justify deportation on account of natural disaster, armed conflict, or other comparable circumstance.

There are lots of reasons why the US should consider TPS for Caribbean countries, based on humanitarian considerations alone.  I outline many of then in a Florida Sun-Sentinel oped, linked here.

But if you’re not convinced that TPS is morally justified, consider the practical benefit. Allowing Caribbean immigrants to stay in the US will actually speed up recovery, and help bring an end to catastrophic conditions on the affected islands.  As I explained in the oped:

TPS helps reverse the very conditions that make deportation so dangerous. Immigrants from TPS countries are permitted to work, and large sums of what they earn are sent back as remittances to their home country. Liberia received upwards of $340 million annually, a full 25 percent of the country’s GDP, before TPS was terminated earlier this year. Remittances to Sierra Leone and Guinea also helped move those countries towards stability, and off the TPS list.

TPS is no easy sell in the current environment.  Haiti is up for TPS renewal this month, following a designation and series of extensions it received after the 2010 earthquake.  The Department of Homeland Security will have the final say, but an influential assessment released last week by the State Department recommended against an additional extension.  If DHS adopts those findings, TPS for Haiti will expire in January 2018.

Nonetheless, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging the Trump Administration to grant TPS to Caribbean nations facing a long recovery.  If they succeed, upwards of 500,000 Caribbean immigrants could potentially benefit, as would the islands themselves.

– Kathleen Bergin

Related: Will TPS for Haiti Be Renewed

The Jones Act Waiver for Puerto Rico Expires Today – Now What?

Show of hands: who here knew about the Jones Act before Vox ran a headline after Hurricane Maria?

Image result for puerto rico shipping port imagesIf you said yes, then you’re probably a maritime lawyer or shipping magnate – in which case, welcome!

If you said no, then you’re more like me – and I’m a lawyer who cut my teeth on a pretty major catastrophe in the Caribbean.  So don’t sweat it.

Anyway, I won’t belabor the details of the Jones Act now that we’re all arm-chair experts.  Besides, the purpose of this post is to explain proposed legislation that aims to reform or repeal the Act in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

But first we need to highlight some basics for friends who just climbed on board.  So let’s dive in.

The Jones Act is THIS bad

By most accounts, the Jones Act is a disaster for Puerto Rico that helped plunge the island into debt, and push the cost of living higher than most major metro areas in the US.  According to one study, it has drained $17 billion from the island economy over 20 years.

Related imageEverything from apples to i-phones are more expensive because of the Act.  Basic necessities are about to get even pricier now that Hurricane Maria destroyed the supply chain but accelerated demand.  That’s an incalculable burden for most Puerto Rico consumers whose annual income averages $18,000 per year.

Here’s how it works

The Jones Act stipulates

Continue reading “The Jones Act Waiver for Puerto Rico Expires Today – Now What?”

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