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'Plenty of work' in Puerto Rico

There are many people in Puerto Rico with special needs that could complicate flood recovery.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 3, 2004

"Some organizations focused their support in the response phase of the relief effort, others in recovery phase, and still some have worked both phases."

—Josué Díaz

A 20 percent unemployment rate. Hundreds of elderly or disabled people unable to repair their homes. Hundreds more undocumented citizens who may not receive federal aid. There are many people in Puerto Rico with special needs that could complicate their flood recovery.

Severe storms moved through Puerto Rico from Nov. 10-23, and then again Dec. 6-8, causing widespread damage across the island.

Of more than 55,000 people who registered with FEMA for disaster assistance, so far 3,513 have "special needs," said according to Josué Díaz, a voluntary agency liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

These cases have come to the attention of coordinated efforts between federal, state and voluntary agencies. And another 2,051 people may also have needs that will complicate their disaster recovery.

FEMA declared 23 municipalities federal disaster areas. Areas along the south and northeast coastlines were the hardest hit. The FEMA registration line will close Wednesday, Feb. 4.

At least 18 municipalities that were significantly impacted were not expected to receive a declaration for federal assistance.

Many of the hardest hit communities are rural neighborhoods with a comparatively high number of elderly residents and unemployed people. In some communities, 20 percent of people are unemployed or elderly.

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, according to Church World Service and other responding groups.

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

Guanica, a community on the southwest coast of the island, has more than 80 families who are affected and staying in temporary shelters. Many homes in this area are built on sides of hills and mountains and are vulnerable to landslides. In addition, some of the homes have been identified as being on top of an underground lake, and are sinking as the water table rises and de-stabilizes the ground.

If new rains come, the ground could give way and some homes could slide down the mountain.

Voluntary agencies have been actively helping meet people's needs since Nov. 10, said Diaz, who has been working closely with the Puerto Rico Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

"Some organizations focused their support in the response phase of the relief effort, others in recovery phase, and still some have worked both phases. A significant note is that they have supported the disaster-affected families with internal resources," said Diaz. "As a result, their resources are depleted and there is still plenty of work to do."

A priority of faith-based and voluntary groups will be to continue to address unmet needs, particularly people with special challenges.

CWS, in addition to helping coordinate a long-term interfaith recovery plan, sent a shipment of 2,000 "Gift of the Heart" health kits, 600 baby kits, and 1,000 lightweight blankets. Three groups are distributing the materials to the most vulnerable families: Iglesia Evangelica Unida (United Church of Christ), Iglesia Metodista (United Methodist Church), and Associacíon de Servicios Sociales Pentecostales (ASSPEN) of Puerto Rico.

CWS is issuing an appeal to respond to anticipated funding requests for recovery groups that will assist families with unmet needs as well as continued support for ongoing work in the affected municipalities.

Diaz and others estimate recovery will take two years. At least some homes will be bought out in an effort to mitigate damage from future disasters. Other mitigation efforts will include building and repairing floodgates in vulnerable communities, and repairing roofs for homeowners who can't do the work themselves.

The needs aren't just material but emotional as well, Diaz added. Voluntary agencies will also "be involved in long-term crisis counseling and in the support of programs that can benefit the disaster-affected children," he said.

Puerto Rico is particularly 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 federal declarations.

Past experience has led to more efficient disaster response and recovery, said Diaz. Voluntary organizations, working with FEMA and Puerto Rican government officials, have more tightly coordinated the functions of voluntary groups, the needs of special populations and donations management. "We have been able to conduct our response and recovery function in a more expeditious manner," said Diaz.

"By expediting processes we accomplish our tasks with economy of time, effort, and enhancing the 'single' point of contact principle," said Diaz. "It is much like the concept of 'One Stop - All Services', where we have the known mission of a voluntary organization together with the donations management and special needs. The contacts for coordination and referrals are basically the same for the three sections, therefore in a single call you can coordinate the collaboration for all response and recovery related actions.

"This concept also strengthened relationships for future operations," he added.

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