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Hurricane Maria recovery efforts continue in Puerto Rico 3 years later

FEMA approved for nearly $7.3 billion to help rebuild island

PUERTO RICO – 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.

Krizia Lopez Arce was born and raised on the island. She moved to Central Florida a month after the storm.

She said she’s starting to finally feel at home.

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“Now I feel like I have a life here and also I have good Puerto Rican food around the corner,” she said.

Three years later, many buildings on the island still have blue tarps acting as roofs, leaving little protection against the elements.

Dr. Fernando Rivera, the director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub at UCF, said many families are still recovering.

“Still imagining three years after, it’s unimaginable that people have gone through that,” Dr. Rivera said.

Rivera investigates and tracks the Puerto Rican population and demographic trends in Florida.

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2017, file photo, debris scatters a destroyed community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. Nasty hurricanes that cause billions of dollars in damage are hitting more often. Laura, which is threatening the U.S. Gulf Coast, is only the latest. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2017, file photo, debris scatters a destroyed community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. Nasty hurricanes that cause billions of dollars in damage are hitting more often. Laura, which is threatening the U.S. Gulf Coast, is only the latest. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Since Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico can’t seem to catch a break. Just earlier this year there was a 6.4 magnitude earthquake that left thousands of people displaced and millions without power for days.

There were 12 earthquakes detected Wednesday. The biggest seismic activity recorded earlier was 3.0 just south of Guayanilla. Slap a pandemic into the mix plus damage from Isaias in July and yes, there are many places that still need help.

“It seems that we’re waiting for the next event to happen and we have to make sure that we’re ready for that,” Dr. Rivera said.

Rubble litters a street in Puerto Rico after Saturday's temblor.
Rubble litters a street in Puerto Rico after Saturday's temblor. (CNN)

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017 as a very strong Category 4 hurricane. It made landfall on the southeast coast of Yabucoa with winds at 155 mph, just below the threshold of a Category 5. Maria is the strongest tropical cyclone to hit the island since Segundo San Felipe, a Category 5 storm in 1928.

Maria, a Category 1 hurricane, rapidly intensified to a Category 5 hurricane in a matter of 18 hours. Just before making landfall, Maria went through eye wall replacement bringing it to Category 4 status. The eye of the storm tripled from roughly 10 miles wide to 32 miles. Hurricane force winds were spread out and more areas experienced the hurricane-force winds.

The Doppler Radar in San Juan was destroyed. Officials with the National Weather Service there said the radar, due to its elevation, experienced winds near 160 mph as the hurricane made landfall.

The radar was replaced nine months later.

Maria’s storm surge of 6-9 feet in addition to 38 inches of rainfall caused mudslides and even flooded the La Plata River and an entire valley. In Toa Baja, many rescues were made as people stood on their roofs.

NWS San Juan tweet showing the Doppler radar destroyed during Hurricane Maria in 2017.
NWS San Juan tweet showing the Doppler radar destroyed during Hurricane Maria in 2017. (NWS)

Maria is one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history including the islands. Nearly $90 billion in damages were reported, putting it after Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017. The death toll was updated to 2,975 in Puerto Rico alone.

More than 80% of the power poles and transmissions were knocked down leaving 3.4 million residents without power. At the end of January 2018, 65% of the island was still without power. Although most power has been restored, there have been massive outages, including one the day before Isaias. The power grid is still very fragile in the most active portion of an above-normal hurricane season.

FEMA reports as of now, more than 4,800 projects have funding obligations. These are mainly for roads, bridges and public buildings. The federal funds will also help strengthen public safety and health care facilities.

“The pace of recovery has been a little bit slow. We have reminders and continue to have reminders about the fragility of the system in Puerto Rico,” Dr. Rivera said.

Rivera said many of the Puerto Ricans who moved to Central Florida after Hurricane Maria are back home. He said those who were displaced are now the focus of his latest research.

He said the Puerto Rico Research Hub is studying how communities who take people in after major events responded.

“The idea is whatever we learn we’re going to share that with policy makers so they make sure the lessons that we learned, what we found, the good things, bad things, what is the impact out here in the population? We can start buidling up those programs in the future,” Dr. Rivera said.


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