ear beats headphones A journey along the path of the hurricane
He sleeps on a mattress in what once was the kitchen. Above the bed, clothes hang from the rafters like Spanish moss from trees. The floor in his old bedroom turned to cardboard and sags like a trampoline. A hole opened up. Few places in the house stay dry. That’s because, three months after Hurricane Maria, he still doesn’t have a functional roof.
Others might have given up, or moved away, but Rodr guez, a 35 year old with boyish freckles and a ruler straight hairline, lived in this house as a child. After his father passed away a few years ago, he says, he moved back in. This is home; he doesn’t want to leave.
So he’s saving up paychecks from his part time hardware store job to buy cinder blocks to rebuild. A couple dozen or so are piled in the yard. And he tried to install a tarp on his own. It doesn’t do much.
What’s brought me to Rodr guez’s house in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, on December 16, is none of this. It’s a yellow piece of paper nailed to the wall, near the front door.
The Right of Entry Form indicates Rodr guez has applied for a professionally installed tarp or Blue Roof from the US Army Corps of Engineers. These free roofs, which are meant to last 30 days, may not sound like much. They can be everything in post hurricane Puerto Rico if you’re dealing with sun and rain inside your house. Operation Blue Roof is not the only housing program for Maria’s victims, but it is one of the main ways a person like Rodr guez can protect his belongings and try to return to some semblance of normalcy.
To qualify, a home must have less than 50% structural damage. Homes with metal or flat roofs, and those made out of concrete, generally are ineligible for the program because of the difficulties of installing tarps on those structures, according to the Army Corps.
Rodr guez’s house was approved for a Blue Roof, according to a government database CNN obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. He said he applied on October 25.
Yet, when I visit, he’s still waiting.
That’s true for tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, the records show.
When I ask Rodr guez about the yellow paper on the wall the prospect of a tarp he brushes off delays, citing the crazy magnitude of Maria. Others have it worse, he says.
Then I show him a photo that, for him, changes everything.
I took this image on December 13 in Carolina, about 20 miles north of where Rodr guez lives. The photo shows a warehouse filled with about 20,000 tarp rolls each representing at least one house, like his, without a roof. There’s another warehouse like this in Ponce, to the south. That one holds 40,000 tarps, according to Mike Feldmann,
temporary roofing mission manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, who gave me a tour of the Carolina warehouse.
More than 70,000 people like Rodr guez requested Blue Roofs between the day Hurricane Maria hit and December 18, according to a CNN analysis of Army Corps data.
Yet only about one third less than 25,000 had received them by that date, the analysis shows.
The Army Corps’ own guidelines say homeowners “should expect work within 14 days of the request.” However, following inquiries from CNN, agency officials acknowledge the database used to track the work does not show how long residents have been waiting for tarps.
The Army Corps could look at paper records to determine how long applicants have been put on hold, an agency spokesperson says. But the agency declined to say whether such an assessment has been done. Blue Roof installations, according to the spokesperson, are prioritized by location and other factors, not by the date a person applied for a tarp.
“Our mission is to install temporary roofs on all eligible structures as quickly as possible,” Patrick Loch, an agency spokesman, says in an email. “Our priority is to maximize the rate of installations across the entire island, and ensure each installation meets the program quality standards. The number of temporary roofs remaining to be installed, along with their location, is the information we use on a daily basis to drive execution of the program.”
As for the room full of tarps?
“That warehouse full of roofs is evidence that we’ve been able to overcome at least one part of that challenge,” which was bringing tarps to the island, says Feldmann, the mission manager. Difficult working conditions in Puerto Rico, including unsafe structures, also contribute to the slowdown, he says. “We’ve done everything we can to address every challenge when we have discovered it and experienced it. There’s always things that you can do better and as we learn about a new challenge we find every opportunity to make it more efficient.”
It doesn’t seem that way to Rodr guez, who’s still waiting for a roof.
“I’m speechless,” he says, looking at the image of the warehouse. “The Army is immensely big, and there are many people with many talents who know how to work in situations like this.
“God would cry over this injustice.”
Two days before I met Rodr guez, I started driving the route the eye of Hurricane Maria bulldozed across Puerto Rico. I’d already spent weeks reporting on conditions after the storm on people desperately searching for clean drinking water; on the likely undercounting of deaths related to Maria and the storm’s aftermath. I wanted to see for myself whether life was returning to normal anywhere along Hurricane Maria’s disastrous path.
In particular, I wanted to know whether people still were living without shelter.
I already knew that tens of thousands were waiting for Blue Roofs in Puerto Rico. And I knew that contracting issues at the Army Corps had slowed the installation of tarps. The Corps had told me as of December 6 that only 26% of Blue Roofs requested had been installed. I didn’t know, however, where the temporary roofs were being installed or how long people were waiting. In the void, I decided to try to follow Hurricane Maria’s path across Puerto Rico. I wanted to survey housing conditions overall not just the Blue Roof program.
Maria’s eye flew about 70 miles through plantain fields and stegosaurus ridged mountains, shanty towns and pastel cities in roughly eight hours on September 20.
It would take me about a week in a rented minivan to follow the same route. I set out on December 14. I would hit closed roads and downed bridges. I would see repairs being made but also dozens of houses like Rodr guez’s that were shells of their former selves. I would meet a baby born after Maria and, later, the relatives of a woman who died in the aftermath.