After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico Is Still Extremely Vulnerable Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria, the government has made vast improvements and residents have worked together to clean up their communities, but Puerto Rico remains extremely vulnerable.

'I Don't Feel Safe': Puerto Rico Preps For Next Storm Without Enough Government Help

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NOEL KING, HOST:

It's been nearly two years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and rebuilding on the island is going slowly. Congress has allocated around $20 billion to rebuild houses and infrastructure, but very little of that money has been dispersed yet. But for many in Puerto Rico, there's a more pressing concern. It is hurricane season again, and across the island, people and communities are trying to get prepared. In Puerto Rico, NPR's Greg Allen found few people who think the island is ready for another hurricane.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Using cranes and heavy equipment, a crew's working to replace an old cement-and-steel bridge that was damaged by Hurricane Maria.

HECTOR CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Hector Cruz says this is the main road in and out of town. He's the director of emergency management in Utuado, a community in the highlands of central Puerto Rico. After the storm, massive landslides and downed trees blocked mountain roads, cutting the town off from the rest of the island for weeks. Many have not rebuilt their homes, and their roofs are still covered with blue tarps. If a hurricane hits Puerto Rico this season, it would be a huge setback, Cruz says.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: "We will have even more washed out roads, less access," he says. "We'll have the same level of destruction. And next time, the problems will be even worse because many things have not been addressed yet." The director of Puerto Rico's Bureau of Emergency Management, Carlos Acevedo, agrees that the island remains vulnerable.

CARLOS ACEVEDO: (Through interpreter) Yes. What happened during Maria could happen again.

ALLEN: Even so, Acevedo says Puerto Rico is much better prepared than it was two years ago. The island now has a detailed disaster response plan, something it didn't have when Maria hit.

ACEVEDO: (Through interpreter) I feel proud of what we've done in Puerto Rico. I trust that the government response in Puerto Rico to a hurricane would be very different this season from Maria's. We have much more information, much more logistics.

ALLEN: Acevedo says his agency now has warehouses around the island stocked with emergency provisions. Another area where there's been a major improvement is communication. All of the island's 78 municipalities now have satellite phones and radios to ensure they won't lose contact with the outside world as they did in Hurricane Maria. But for many residents, there's another concern. After Maria, their homes aren't safe places to take shelter. A FEMA assessment found nearly every building in Puerto Rico was damaged by the storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ALLEN: Few communities were hit harder than Toa Baja, a town just west of San Juan. After torrential rains during Maria, the government opened the gates of a nearby dam, causing extensive flooding. Yarilin Colon is the president of Toaville, a neighborhood in Toa Baja. She says about a third of the homes in her neighborhood now are abandoned.

YARILIN COLON: (Through interpreter) I worry about that. They bring in vandalism. There are two abandoned homes across the street from my house, and I don't feel safe.

ALLEN: Colon's house lost its roof. Her seamstress studio on the first floor was destroyed. Because she and her husband have a mortgage to pay, she says they have no choice but to stay. So she's organized her community to rebuild and prepare for the next hurricane.

COLON: (Through interpreter) It would be good to get help from the government, but we're not waiting for the government here. We are helping ourselves.

ALLEN: Neighbor Marilian Vazquez says her family is still reeling from Maria. Her home was heavily damaged. After her husband's ice cream truck was destroyed, he fell into a deep depression and hasn't worked since. As she tells the story, tears roll down her cheeks.

MARILIAN VAZQUEZ: (Through interpreter) We haven't seen anything done in Toaville to make us feel safer. The authorities haven't done anything to improve river water flow. We haven't seen any cleanup of the drain system. I just don't feel safe.

ALLEN: Vazquez says her sons and in-laws live in the neighborhood, and that's what's keeping her here.

VAZQUEZ: (Through interpreter) I'd like to move, though Toaville is a very nice place. It's peaceful. We are a close-knit community. I have great neighbors. But for my peace of mind, I'd move. It's just not easy.

ALLEN: Astrid Diaz, an architect who works to build resilient homes and communities, says even among people who live in unsafe areas, that's not uncommon.

ASTRID DIAZ: The tradition in Puerto Rico is that generation after generation, they want to live in the same neighborhood. And it's very difficult to try to relocate them. And that's part of the challenge, to educate them that they're going to have a better life if they go to a safe place. People say (speaking Spanish) nobody get me out from here.

ALLEN: In the absence of help from the government, communities like Toa Baja and many others are taking steps on their own to become more resilient and able to respond to future disasters. About an hour's drive southwest of Toa Baja, up narrow, winding roads, takes you to Mameyes, a small mountain community. Since the storm, residents have opened a health clinic. Nurse Noelia Rivera takes us on a tour.

NOELIA RIVERA: (Through interpreter) This is the surgery room. If someone comes in with wounds, cuts, maybe an abscess that we can drain, we can treat minor injuries here. Otherwise we assess and transport to a hospital.

ALLEN: The clinic was opened with help from foundations and charities and is powered totally by solar panels. It serves seven rural communities with many elderly residents. Before Maria, people here had to travel an hour or more for health care, even for minor issues. Once the storm hit, health care became even more critical. And Rivera says it took weeks for outside help to arrive.

RIVERA: (Through interpreter) Of course, all the roads were unpassable. They were washed out or covered with dirt. The road to Jayuya, to Utuado, to Arecibo, to Manati - we had to clean out all the landslides. The community came together, but it was a huge job.

ALLEN: Residents here believe the health clinic will make Mameyes self-sufficient and able to respond in future disasters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: Back in the small city of Utuado, things look much better than they did right after the storm. On the town square, people are out. Stores are open. The flags of the U.S., Puerto Rico and Utuado fly outside the colonial-era city hall. But the town's mayor, 36-year-old Ernesto Irizarry, says flatly we will never be fully prepared for a hurricane.

ERNESTO IRIZARRY: (Through interpreter) Yes, we can be stronger because we've built a better communication system or because we now know what to do in a catastrophic situation. But the important thing here is personal readiness, that you and your family are ready to survive for three weeks or a month without government help.

ALLEN: For people in Puerto Rico two years after Hurricane Maria, that may be the storm's most important message. Being prepared means not being dependent on that government help.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Utuado, Puerto Rico.

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