PUNTA SANTIAGO, Puerto Rico – Recovery progress is perhaps more obvious here than elsewhere on the island as Punta Santiago sheds the moniker “Apocalypse Beach” locals adopted after Hurricane María.
It was here, a 20-minute drive from where Hurricane María made landfall, the words “Necesitamos agua/comida,” or “We need water and food,” were chalked onto the asphalt. An image of this desperate call for help made national news.
Now, damaged houses in the small coastal resort town located in the southeastern municipality of Humacao are giving way to stronger homes with the help of volunteer and veteran service organizations.
Gladys Oquendo is one of many elderly homeowners living in this low-income community of 5,000 residents that was nearly flattened and flooded by storm surges. The 70-year-old grandmother returned home to find a leaking roof and damaged doors. She also lost furniture and personal belongings.
“Everything was upside down,” Gladys remembers of those first weeks after María. She slept on the floor while trying to put things back as best as she could.
A little over a year later, voices of volunteers along with hammering and the buzzing of electrical saws can be heard in Gladys’s home as new doors are being installed. These volunteers are part of Team Rubicon, one of several veteran service organizations aiding recovery efforts in Punta Santiago, at the request of the nonprofit Programa de Educación Comunal de Entrega y Servicio, also known as PECES. After María, PECES provided construction materials to residents like Gladys, who needed help to do repair work.
In the last seven months, Team Rubicon, with assistance from FEMA’s Voluntary Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair program—which supplies free building materials to 62 nonprofit organizations in Puerto Rico—has rebuilt over 300 roofs. The organization has committed to rebuilding 1,000 roofs in 22 municipalities across the island by January 2019.
“Voluntary organizations are a key partner when the federal government provides assistance to individuals as well as those who continue the recovery,” said Waddy Gonzalez, director of the Health and Social Services sector in FEMA’s recovery office in Puerto Rico.
With help from these volunteer organizations and FEMA, residents of Punta Santiago have finally been able to move forward in their recovery from the storms.