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Floods Leave Lives At Sea…More Federal Aid Sought

Floods Leave Puerto Ricans' Lives At Sea

By Rick Maese | Sentinel Staff Writer

November 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

SALINAS, Puerto Rico -- The sun has returned, but it's too late. Even if the water miraculously dries up, too much is already ruined -- lives drenched and hopes drowned.

Like thousands of Puerto Ricans hit by the massive floods of the past week, Jessica Perez lost so much. She can't go home. More than 2 feet of rain made sure of that.

Forced to seek shelter in a high school, she is relying on donations of food and clothing.

Now that the downpours have stopped, people throughout the U.S. commonwealth are dealing with the problems left in its wake.

For some, that's as simple as catching up on schoolwork or mopping the front porch.

For others, it means pleading for government aid and, in some cases, finding a place to live.

Perez pulled a donated dress out of a box, held it up to her thin frame and, tongue in cheek, announced: "I'm going to Hollywood today!"

In reality, she's not sure where she'll go. There was talk Thursday morning that the shelter where Perez and dozens of others were camped out would close. The building is a high school, but classes are off until the evacuees leave.

Perez's shoebox of a house is ruined. If she were to return there, she's certain that social-service workers would take away her two young children. The water turned their home into a wading pool.

Perez, 22, must decide soon where she'll go. The rain is over in Salinas, but the storm continues to brew as residents attempt to pick up their lives.

Millions in losses

Though government officials are still tabulating the total damage -- and worrying that the rains could return next week -- they have already pegged the losses at more than $50 million.

Crops were destroyed, roads and infrastructure damaged, and homes and personal effects waterlogged or washed away.

At least two fatalities have been linked to the flooding, and the personal-property loss is expected to exceed $10 million.

Salinas was hit worst. In one neighborhood on the southeast side of town, there's a nameless street that is nearly impassable, resembling a stream, not a road. "¡Madre mia!" Adrian Rodriguez exclaimed, surveying damage in his back yard.

Rodriguez, 66, and his family return each day to clean and repair a home no longer fit to live in.

The water is gone now; the only physical reminder is the stained line that runs along the wall, 21/2 feet off the ground.

Some pieces of furniture are still resting on cinder blocks -- not high enough to have escaped the water. Rodriguez didn't have time to save most things, such as the television, mattresses, a sofa and new refrigerator.

"Once you see that you're in danger, you grab your kids and you go," he said.

Rodriguez, with salt-and-pepper tufts of hair squeezing out from under a New York Yankees cap, stood in the back yard, where he has about a dozen chickens and roosters. Some he raises for fighting; others are pets.

"These are my sons," he said, smiling as he puts his fingers to the cage, inviting a series of pecks. Five of his chickens drowned in the flood.

Rodriguez, whose family built the small house 32 years ago, said the water did too much damage to the home. He'll tear it down soon and start again, building higher off the ground this time.

Inhospitable welcome

Jessica Perez just returned to Puerto Rico last month. She had been in the Bronx borough of New York City with her husband, Alexis Morales, 21, and her children, Alexis Jr., 1, and Yaidennise, 4 months.

In New York, Morales couldn't find work, and the family's dream was deferred.

After just a couple of weeks back in Salinas, their tiny home was overrun with water. Perez and Morales were the first family to report to the Salinas shelter.

Inside the shelter, nearly a half-dozen families -- mostly young couples with children -- share a classroom.

"They tell you they're going to try and help you in many ways," Perez said. "But when you really need things, they can't find them."

They sleep on green cots and eat government-issued meals. Garbage bags line the walls, filled with possessions grabbed on a moment's notice.

Perez feels as though she's out of options. Morales has been unable to find work. She doesn't want to return to her flooded home.

The government, which has authorized the distribution of $7 million to island residents who suffered losses, has given Perez $500.

"Do they pretend that with $500 I can replace my dad's bedroom set that was ruined, my mattresses, my children's clothes, my own clothes?" she said. "It's welcomed help. But they also have to understand that my needs are much greater than what they've given me."

Waiting and hoping

Back on the nameless street, Adrian Rodriguez's neighbor shoveled the roadway. Most of the homes here suffered some degree of damage. At one point the road-turned-river branched off and flowed through what used to be a driveway.

Mattresses lined the fence outside Bethzida Figueroa Rivera's house.

Inside, the home smelled like freshly cut wood as Rivera and her two young girls cleaned, transplanting their lives from the first floor to the newly-built second floor.

Swarms of mosquitoes -- a pesky byproduct of the floods -- buzzed around the children.

The flooding was especially bad in Rivera's home, ruining three rooms.

On Wednesday, her husband borrowed wood from a lumber company to give his family refuge high above the home's damp foundation.

"It filled up all of the sudden," said Rivera, recalling how the rainwater first flooded the driveway on Tuesday. "[My] girls even went swimming [in the water]. Imagine that!"

The long list of Rivera's losses reads like a wedding registry: everything from bookshelves and clothing to living-room chairs and the car, an old Chevy Nova now waterlogged.

In the back of her home, at the other end of her drowned driveway, 21-year-old Ruben Villegas lives with his 17-year-old wife, Yaritza Rodriguez, and 7-month-old baby. It is the first home he and his young family have known together.

Now they're spending their nights at relatives' homes, waiting for the government to assess the damage.

In times like these, many people on this island rely on the commonwealth government, which fears the flood will drain too much from the island's $150 million disaster fund.

Residents have crammed the outdoor patio areas of Salinas' government center for the past four days, trying to see officials with the island's Family Department to make a claim for aid.

"I should get seen today," said one woman, with a child clinging to her thigh. "I have No. 145." And what number are they on now? "Like 5."

The women waited until 10 p.m. Wednesday and planned to stay Thursday until they receive money.

"Then, we go shopping," another woman said with a smile.

Some of the people who come to the agency to request money are filing fraudulent claims. There have been reports of some locals claiming occupancy of abandoned homes in order to receive relief money.

A lesson in survival

Many people here seem to maintain good spirits. On one hand, the poor people lost so much this week. On another, they had so little to lose.

Jessica Perez met with government officials at noon Thursday. She was told that she would have to leave the shelter.

By 3 o'clock, she had packed her belongings and was moved to a community center, where she'll live until she is ushered somewhere else.

Classes at Luis Muñoz high school will resume Monday for 300 10th-graders.

Perez spent her last couple of hours at the school caring for children and gathering her things.

In an adjacent room, a teacher prepared her classroom. Her class had been studying survival.

Just one week ago, Nibia Rolon's students didn't understand the concept.

During the past few days, she has visited the school and saw three of her students living there as evacuees.

"When they come back," she said, "and I ask them how was their experience, they're really going to know."

Puerto Rico Seeks More Federal Aid After Storms

By Matthew Hay Brown

November 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico · Thousands of families have appealed to the federal government for help following the heavy rains this month that caused millions of dollars in damage to homes, roads, bridges and crops.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to open a disaster recovery center today in the southern town of Salinas, one of 16 municipalities included in the disaster area President Bush has declared in this Caribbean U.S. commonwealth.

It was to be the first of several such centers to be set up around the island following what officials here have called the second-worst natural disaster in memory.

A clash of weather systems two weeks ago dumped more than 2 feet of rain on some spots, unleashing flash floods and mudslides in several areas. Rising waters washed out some bridges and rendered others impassable. Two men were swept away by raging rivers; thousands of families were ordered from their homes.

Fifty-three residents from 19 families remained in shelters in the southern town of Guanica and the central town of Caguas, the island's emergency management agency reported Sunday. It was not clear when they would be able to return to their communities.

Island officials have estimated the destruction to homes, roads, and crops at $45 million. Gov. Sila M. Calderón has activated $7 million from an island disaster fund and asked the federal government for additional help.

On Monday, Bush added seven more towns to the nine he included in the disaster area he declared last week. FEMA has dispatched 286 inspectors to the island to assess damage. By midday, the agency had logged more than 2,250 calls for help.

The amount of FEMA aid that ultimately is distributed will depend on individual needs, spokeswoman María Dávila said. The funds may be used to repair or replace homes or pay for temporary shelter.

Calderón also has asked for federal money to repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Dávila said the request is under consideration. Other funds may be available through the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The island chapter of the American Red Cross said it had distributed $100,000 in aid and is trying to raise $1 million to assist 3,000 families. Donations may be directed to the American Red Cross, Puerto Rico Chapter, P.O. Box 9021061, San Juan, PR 00902-1067

Flooding and landslides from the same rains were blamed in the deaths of two men and a boy in the Dominican Republic to the west, and caused millions of dollars in damage to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands to the east.

Rafael Guzman, executive director of Puerto Rico's emergency management agency, said the havoc wrought here is second only to that caused by Hurricane Georges, which killed 465 here in 1998.

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