Central Floridians say $8.2 billion in relief after Hurricane Maria is long overdue

Puerto Rico struggling with infrastructure, electrical grid years after Category 4 storm

Nearly four years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. federal government has allocated another $8.2 billion in relief funds to help the country build back better

ORLANDO, Fla. – Nearly four years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. federal government has allocated another $8.2 billion in relief funds to help the country build back better. Today, people in Central Florida say that money will be felt locally as they continue to see friends and family struggle to recover from the series of natural disasters that have plagued the island.

“I just hope people don’t forget that 3,000 people died,” Mario Rosa said.

The 33-year-old, now a resident of Central Florida, said Sept. 20, 2017, is a day he will never forget.

Hurricane Maria pounded Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, destroying the power grid and caused more than $100 billion in damages. That day changed the lives of around 3 million Puerto Ricans. Like a domino effect, thousands of Floridians either took in loved ones or islanders relocated to the Sunshine State to start a new life.

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“Maria was our Katrina; Maria was our Andrew. I talk to people who went through Andrew they still get PTSD from it,” Rosa said. “I remember those first two weeks just wondering ‘how are we gonna recover from this? How do you recover from this?’ My hope is if there’s a next time ‘cause there probably will be, to not be 9 months without power so people don’t have to suffer through that.”

The memories are still vivid and painful for Freddie Agrait who like Rosa, relocated to Central Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

“We knew that it was gonna be hard, but we didn’t realize that it would end up being kind of an apocalyptic experience,” Agrait recalled. “The next morning you wake up you have no electricity, no water, no communication, so it’s like going back to the Stone Age. We really rationed the food so that we could basically survive.”

[WATCH: Hurricane Maria recovery efforts continue in Puerto Rico 3 years later]

On Wednesday, FEMA reported nearly $7.3 billion approved to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s critical infrastructure and historical buildings still damaged from Hurricane Maria in 2017.

In its latest effort to support the island’s recovery, the Biden administration released $8.2 billion dollars through the Community Development Block Grant Mitigation within the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is on top of the $7.3 billion FEMA approved in 2020.

“This award, which we recently executed for $8.2 billion, and then there are additional funds that they’ll be able to access for infrastructure and for the electrical grid,” Tennille Parker, the disaster recovery director for HUD said.

Puerto Rico’s reconstruction has faced a slow recovery following the devastation of Maria, partly due to spending restrictions placed by the previous director for the HUD during the Trump administration. The island had to request and submit certification, observations, and recommendations by the Financial Oversight and Management Board to be allowed to apply for more grants and assistance from the federal government. The HUD has removed this requirement and has allowed grant funding to be used to improve Puerto Rico’s power grid, infrastructure and mitigate disaster risk for future disasters.

“That’s gonna be a great help for Puerto Rico. Still, to this day there’s still people with blue tarps on their roofs; there’s still bridges that have not been rebuilt completely, roads that have not been rebuilt,” Fernando Rivera, University of Central Florida sociology professor and director of the Puerto Rican Research Hub said.

Rivera is working on a study to learn how prepared Osceola and Orange counties were after more than 130,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland following the storm. Approximately 55,000 people relocated to Central Florida, according to Rivera’s research.

“Eventually a lot of people that came after Hurricane Maria went back to the island, but they came back to the island to the reality of earthquakes and the reality of COVID-19,” Rivera said, adding that the earthquakes in January 2020 and the island’s ongoing financial crisis have also slowed down the recovery process.

Rosa said he hopes if another natural disaster like Maria hits the island, there will be a better outcome from the federal government.

“Seeing the lack of response, the lack of care-- that hurt. You kind of feel reduced, dehumanized,” he said. “The response was what actually marked us, that was what everyone will feel. It’s not the storm itself. It’s the aftermath and the lack of response.”


About the Author:

Carolina Cardona highlights all Central Florida has to offer in her stories on News 6 at Nine. She joined News 6 in June 2018 from the Telemundo station in Philadelphia.