SALINAS, Puerto Rico — When Leida Rodriguez started building a house in Villa Esperanza, neighbors suggested she lift it because the nearby Rio Nigua rose a few feet during Hurricane Maria — nothing these weathered coastal souls hadn’t seen before.
“It was my refuge, my place of peace,” said Rodriguez, 50, who along with her husband used their life savings to build the home block by concrete block. “We thought it wasn’t going to happen. No one had ever seen flooding like what happened.”
Hurricane Fiona dumped at least half as much rain as the coastal town of Salinas — where most residents live in flood zones — sees in a year. Though the storm brought far less powerful winds than Category-4 Maria in 2017, some parts of the main island experienced just as much rain or more. Many were caught off guard. First responders rescued hundreds of people from inundated homes and some roads and bridges repaired after Maria were destroyed again.
The U.S. government made historic allocations, including more than $3 billion for hazard mitigation, to Puerto Rico after Maria — some of which was slated to go toward preventing severe flooding during storms. A separate pot of federal public assistance money is designated for rebuilding public infrastructure. In Salinas, which was walloped by Maria and battered again by Fiona, officials have submitted 74 projects to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding. To date, just seven — including road repairs and a basketball court — have been completed, according to data from Puerto Rico’s Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency. About two dozen more entered the construction phase in the last six months.
Salinas officials have identified 44 potential mitigation projects. So far, they’ve submitted three, including a proposal to build a water treatment plant that was approved in December and is in the design phase. Two other projects under review propose installing generators at critical facilities and a new storm water system on public streets leading to a hospital. Neither one of those projects has been constructed.
“I’m pretty sure if these mitigation plans would have been carried out, it would’ve mitigated the issues that some of these municipalities experienced,” said researcher Jennifer Hinojosa, who works for Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York and been tracking the recovery from Maria.
Instead, residents and experts say unrestrained coastal construction, mangrove destruction, deforestation, coastal erosion and poor canal maintenance have heightened the risk for marginalized communities like Salinas, a town of 25,000.
Across the island archipelago, 5 percent of the available post-Maria FEMA funds for hazard mitigation have been obligated, according to the data from Puerto Rico’s recovery office, a first hurdle in getting a project started. The cumbersome management of those funds at both the federal and local level is slowing down Puerto Rico’s slow long-term resiliency reconstruction, experts said.
FEMA officials said they are continuing to work with municipalities to help stave off the most severe — and in some cases, preventable — damage when a storm rolls through.
“Hurricanes are a natural phenomenon,” said Victor Alvarado, a local environmental activist. “Disasters are man-made.”
‘Maria didn’t do this’
Puerto Rico’s southern region is drier than its northern coast, and its topography makes it prone to rapid flooding. Hurricane Fiona concentrated its heavy rainfall over the southern slopes of the central mountains where water rushes down steep highlands and spills into the coastal plain until it reaches the sea. The soil is often unable to absorb all the moisture, and instead it runs off the surface, according to meteorologists and regional climatological reports.
While the eye of the storm swirled westward, it dragged a line of intense weather that brought with it sustained humidity. That system pounded the southern coast with relentless precipitation.
“It’s a double whammy. You have a hurricane with strong gusts and then a tail of intense rain that remained stationary over the south dropping two to three feet of water,” said University of Wisconsin meteorologist Ángel Adames-Corraliza, a native of Puerto Rico. “That’s a nightmare scenario.”
Weeks earlier, Salinas residents had been worried about persistent drought conditions threatening their aquifer and only source of drinking water in the municipality. Today, many neighbors are struggling to understand why the inundation was so fierce that it triggered midnight rescues for hundreds who said they had never seen so much water. Engorged streams and creeks burst in all directions. The Rio Nigua jumped its banks and discharged into channels never carved in recent memory.
Daniel and Maria De Jesús have lived confidently inside their home in the Coquí community of Salinas for more than 40 years, never before experiencing a severe deluge. The house sits a few feet above the low-lying roadway. Yet several hours into Fiona’s downpours, brackish water invaded their bedroom.
“I’ve never felt so much fear,” said Daniel De Jesús, 76, whose family was rescued by National Guard troops Sunday. “I stayed here during Maria. If I had done the same for Fiona, I would not be here to talk about it.”
Pieces of newly-laid asphalt was shattered like shards of glass and strewn about the neighborhood. The smell of rot was inescapable as residents piled their waterlogged furniture on the curb next to mounds of riverbed soil and sheared vegetation. Families strung out their clothes hoping the blistering post-storm sun would dry them out and get rid of the unmistakable odor of mold.
The De Jesús family lost most of their possessions. But that is not what worries them. They said they have warily watched how new construction projects, such as a nearby solar farm and housing developments, have taken little care for the geography and risks of the flood plain.
“Nature is reclaiming and telling us this belongs to her,” Daniel De Jesús said. “As the saying goes, the river always finds its course.”
Developers build too close to creeks and canals. They compact the soil and fill in wetlands with sand and gravel. They change natural water flows, said environmental lawyer Ruth Santiago, who works closely with a coalition of community-based organizations.
“There are things that are being approved...that are making the flooding worse,” she said.
Salinas Mayor Karilyn Bonilla Colón did not respond to interview requests but has been vocal in the local press about using the federal dollars principally for flood mitigation and urban renewal.
Illegal coastal construction in protected estuaries and sensitive land reserves, such as nearby Jobos Bay, has become a flash point for locals and other Puerto Ricans living near the ocean. In recent years, communities have waged court battles and protested against the central government giving what they see as illegal permits to builders destroying mangrove forests and exacerbating flooding.
Mangroves act as natural barriers that protect communities from storm surge and can absorb water, among other ecological benefits. These same communities saw flood levels rise dangerously in the middle of the night, Santiago said.
“Puerto Rico is a group of islands that is very limited in geographic space. It can be described as a mountain range surrounded by a narrow coastal plain. And that coastal plain is very narrow in the south,” Santiago said. “So you can’t keep building, using up land space. Floodwaters need areas that are not impacted by construction in order to go out to the sea without causing damage.”
Victor Bonilla said he held out as long as he could but when the water reached nearly a foot in height at 12:30 a.m. on Monday, he put his two boys and wife inside a dump truck that was helping to evacuate residents of barrio Playita — walking distance from the popular Punta Arenas beach.
“I didn’t want to leave. I’m a fighter but when you have a family, you’ve got to surrender,” said Bonilla, 37, whose family has lived and fished here for generations. “You learn how to live with flooding and adjust but we didn’t think this storm would do this. Maria didn’t do this.”
The type of construction work that should be happening, residents and experts say, has not transpired in decades. Levees, canal dredging, sea walls and other diversions are the kind of flood control measures the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has long studied in this region. They’ve made recommendations and drawn up detailed plans, but the work either was not funded or was not completed, local officials and residents said.
In 2018, Puerto Rico’s congressional representative, Jenniffer González Colón(R), announced the approval of $2.5 billion of federal funding for flood control projects, including the canalization and construction of levees along Rio Nigua in Salinas. Some work has begun and is in the design phase, but not in time to make a difference for hundreds of families like the ones community leader Ismenia Figueroa serves.
“You learn to fight for what’s yours here and depend on no one,” said Figueroa, 60, her eyes reddening with tears. “But the sense of powerlessness can be so suffocating.”
This is the kind of thing Puerto Ricans in these Salinas neighborhoods and leaders said they have come to expect: Many overtures and announcements but lagging progress.
The sluggish pace of FEMA dollars reaching those communities with the most urgent infrastructure needs is a frustrating fact of life for residents. Much of the completed public infrastructure work in Puerto Rico has gone to rehabbing roads or rebuilding recreational facilities, records show, after Hurricane Maria.
The work is necessary, community leaders say, but so many of the projects that require significant investment, engineering and design to create resiliency stay suspended in the proposal phase. Some of these plans and requests for hazard mitigation date back to declared disasters from previous hurricanes, according to FEMA data obtained by The Washington Post.
The delays are the consequence of bureaucratic hurdles and management struggles at the state and federal level, said former FEMA hazard mitigation expert and historian, Rafael Torrech. The veteran grant writer was brought in after Hurricane Maria to help guide applicants through the process. Hazard mitigation projects normally take longer and can take a back seat to the rebuilding of public infrastructure because they are focused on planning for the future.
FEMA has dedicated staff, but the mechanisms for releasing money are outdated and ill-suited to long-term reconstruction, Torrech said. The added complications of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy and lack of access to financing meant the government could not afford to put out bids for work through the federal agency’s reimbursement model. It took time for FEMA, Puerto Rico’s recovery office and the fiscal oversight board managing the commonwealth’s finances to develop cash flow solutions.
By then, there were labor and material shortages driven by the pandemic, transportation issues and an ongoing exodus from Puerto Rico. A limited supply of professional firms able to do design and engineering work from the island archipelago drove up costs.
“Puerto Rico is a perfect example of everything that went wrong,” Torrech said. “Practically, none of the mitigation projects has gotten to the construction phase. You cannot control nature, but you can control your reaction to it. It’s a question of management.”
It’s a cycle that has been repeated disaster after disaster, experts said. Soon, the only options left for some of Puerto Rico’s most under-resourced communities such as those in Salinas, is to abandon their homes and relocate.
Wanda Lee considered it. The 44-year-old left her seaside home to start anew in Pennsylvania, overwhelmed by the weeks of powerlessness and joblessness in the aftermath of Maria. But, she said, the island called her back home.
Then came Fiona. Lee was asleep for most of it, relegating the storm to an afterthought. When she awoke and stood up from her bed, she stepped into a puddle of water. The flooding was worse than five years earlier and she and her neighbors had to be rescued from their homes. But this time, she won’t be packing up.
“I stick out the storms and I stick out these hurricanes because it’s part of me,” Lee said in front of her newly waterlogged home. “I’m a playera,” or beach lover, “and this is what we do.”
Rodriguez, the woman who lost her house to a mudslide near the river, spent hours on the phone Thursday with federal officials to see if she qualifies for help. She said she is not optimistic because the low-cost lot where her house once stood was in a flood zone where many of her neighbors did not get help after Maria.
“I will recover,” she said. “But I won’t rebuild here.”