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Roof repair focus in PR

Voluntary groups and the Department of Housing in Puerto Rico formed a partnership that focuses on fixing damaged roofs.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 10, 2004

"Voluntary agencies will do the repair work."

—Josue Diaz

Voluntary organizations and the Department of Housing in Puerto Rico have formed a partnership that focuses on fixing damaged roofs before the next disaster hits.

November and December flooding and mudslides damaged hundreds of homes across the island.

The Puerto Rican Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) coalition has teamed with the Puerto Rico's Department of Housing, explained Josue Diaz, a voluntary agency liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"When we have a special needs case that requires repair materials, we study the case and forward it to the Department of Housing," explained Diaz. "The Department of Housing receives the case, then they send out a technical expert to confirm the house is repairable.

"The Department of Housing gives a maximum of $1,000 per housing unit if the dwelling qualifies," said Diaz.

The funds are given to the resident in the form of a voucher that can be spent at the hardware store to purchase supplies.

Where does the VOAD come in? Voluntary organizations supply the labor to repair the house. "Some people have family members or neighbors who can do the work," said Diaz.

But many don't have the physical capability to repair their roof. "The Department of Housing doesn't want to issue vouchers to owners who don't have anyone to fix it," said Diaz. "That's where the VOAD comes in. Voluntary agencies will do the repair work."

Vouchers are issued with a reasonable deadline by which the roof should be fixed. After roof work has begun, the Department of Housing will send a technical expert out to check on the roof from time to time, said Diaz, and then that representative makes a final visit by the deadline to determine the work is finished.

More than 200 cases have already been sent over to the Department of Housing, said Diaz, who hopes the first voucher will be issued as early as next week. "And we will continue to have more referrals."

The program is making its debut amid cheers and prayers, too. "What I pray for every day is to be able to satisfy the needs of all these families before hurricane season hits," said Diaz.

Many of the hardest hit communities are rural neighborhoods with a high number of elderly residents and unemployed people.

The unemployment rate is 19.82 percent in the declared municipalities higher than Puerto Rico's average of 11.5 percent.

These groups may need assistance beyond the federal government 's maximum disaster benefit for repairs.

There are also many undocumented families, especially on the eastern side of the island. Many of these families do not qualify for assistance because their damaged or destroyed homes were on land to which they do not hold titles. Many also have undocumented immigration status.

Those are the populations this partnership will help, explained Diaz, because the partnership draws on the strengths of the VOAD and the government. "What the VOAD doesn't have is money. But they have the labor," he said.

Haydee Lopez, who represents the United Methodist Church of Puerto Rico on the Puerto Rican VOAD, put it this way: "We're going to help people who can't do the work themselves."

Lopez pointed out that the partnership marks a new era for the VOAD's relationship with the government. "It means that part of the government trusts the voluntary organizations to coordinate the work. I see this as the biggest success our VOAD will have. For the first time, the housing department will count on voluntary organizations."

The partnership is only the latest of the accomplishments of the Puerto Rico VOAD. Mark Johnston, who represents Lutheran Disaster Response on the Puerto Rico VOAD, said it's a group that has become close-knit because it is inclusive and communicates openly. "It really does work," he said. "It gets the Rotary Club next to Catholic Charities next to the Mennonites."

A VOAD meeting isn't just another meeting it's an active exchange of ideas, agreed Lopez. "We share information as to what the situation is like."

With help from funds from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Lopez and her colleagues have been assessing the needs of special populations. "Children seem to be very impacted, especially by the latest floods," she observed.

One current challenge for the VOAD is reminding the public that there is a disaster in Puerto Rico. The situation was quickly out of the media limelight, said Johnston, because "it wasn't a hurricane." But flood damage was severe enough that response leaders estimate recovery will take two years.

Puerto Rico is vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes. The island faced two federally declared flood disasters in 2001, and hurricanes in both 1998 and 1996 also resulted in declarations.

Another aspect of the VOAD that has been strengthened over the past couple years is its ability to more wholly assess the impact a disaster has on survivors, said the Rev. Francisco Velazquez, a Presbyterian pastor who, with financial backing from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, works alongside other VOAD members to determine a long-term recovery plan. Church World Service has been helping faith-based groups organize their resources to focus on long-term needs.

"You know what I think the biggest accomplishment is?" said Velazquez. "We look at not only the physical house but the spiritual lives of people."

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