Six months after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, many areas of the country outside the tourist hot spots are still in crumbling disrepair – some without electricity since the first storm, Hurricane Irma – and residents of the island nation that is closely tied to Chelsea continue to suffer.
Record photographer Keiko Hiromi traveled to Puerto Rico in late March to survey the damage, having followed the story last fall when Chelsea galvanized to provide thousands of pounds and multiple truckloads of donations to help relieve the situation.
Residents of Chelsea are closely tied to Puerto Rico, with thousands here having been born there or having had relatives emigrate here from the island.
Hiromi reported that upon landing at the airport, things looked normal, but upon leaving the population centers, she discovered homes in much the same shape as the day after the devastation.
“When I landed at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport on March 21, everything looked normal as if nothing had ever happened,” she said. “As I spent five days travelling through Puerto Rico, sometimes away from the functioning tourist areas, I witnessed Puerto Rico in recovery. Many raw scars were still unmended: debris on roads, houses without roofs. Yet, at the same time, I encountered the faces of resilient, strong, patient people, compassionate for each other.”
At the Chelsea Collaborative, Director Gladys Vega and Program Manager Sylvia Ramirez were not surprised at what Hiromi found. Both said they are worried that too many have forgotten about the disaster despite the fact that little has improved for many there.
“I knew that the island was going to be devastated, and at the same time I am shocked how citizens of the United States are so ignored,” she said. “In the next few months, the hurricane season is going to be starting again, and Puerto Rico is nowhere near able to take their normal storm season. One thing I was extremely sad about is we are not getting any help. The news has forgotten about Puerto Rico and moved on to other things. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico is still in devastation. People are suffering, they have no housing and they’re hungry.”
Ramirez said she feels the same way.
After the devastation, she headed up the Collaborative’s efforts to provide aid to those in Puerto Rico, and also to welcome families coming to Chelsea from the island for refuge.
She said much remains the same there, but that story isn’t getting out.
“I think the lack of coverage in the news doesn’t really portray the reality of what’s happening there,” she said. “People go on with their lives and they focus on their kids, they go to work, Christmas came and went. It’s no longer a priority because it’s not in the news. Our plan here in Chelsea is to do another call for action in June or July to bring attention to the situation. The worry for everyone is that nothing is being done to prepare for this year’s hurricane season.
“People go on with their lives, but there are still parts of the island absolutely devastated and nobody is talking about that,” she continued.
That is exactly what Hiromi reported firsthand.
In Toa Baja, just outside of San Juan Hiromi found Miguel Anjel Mericado at his home. His home still had a collapsed roof that had not been fixed and was open to the elements. Beams rested on the floor and electricity was spotty. He collected items that he could find in order to continue the efforts of fixing the home.
Hiromi also visited Yabucoa, where Maria first made landfall.
In Vega Alta, a rural community in the mountains, she visited a family that had no electricity since Hurricane Irma – the first storm to hit Puerto Rico last year even before Hurricane Maria.
Herberto Rivera, a school bus driver there, had been powering the family home with a generator they purchased months ago. They hoped that power would come back to the community before the next hurricane season.
In Chelsea, Ramirez said they are currently working with 55 families who came to the city after the hurricane for refuge, with 18 of them still in FEMA hotels. Statewide, she said, there are nearly 700 families in hotels who arrived after the storm, and 530 are in FEMA hotel rooms. The dire need is that FEMA will stop paying for those rooms on April 20. Already 123 families have used up the FEMA payments and are being paid for by the Red Cross.
She said they are still collecting furniture for those refugees moving into apartments, and they are still trying to secure more stable living conditions.
At the same time, the identical fight continues on the island of Puerto Rico.
“There are still a lot of people without electricity and with blue tarps on their roofs,” said Ramirez. “That’s the reality.”
Chelsea only has a few square miles of land to play with, so new flood maps that basically envelope entirely new areas into the federal floor zone – meaning flood insurance would now be required – have become a high stakes threat to the City’s future.
With that in mind, Chelsea has joined forces this week with Boston, Revere and Winthrop to put together a formal appeal of the flood maps – which were drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with Global Warming sea level rise predictions in mind.
The end result of those current maps is that many areas that were nowhere near a flood zone on the old maps are now fully within the zone. Those areas include the Everett Avenue area, the neighboring industrial area and parts of Eastern Avenue/Marginal Street. The end result would mean that commercial and residential property owners who never had to have flood insurance would now have to carry the expensive policies. Other areas where flood insurance is also required would now be in a riskier zone, making current policies go up in cost.
In Revere and Winthrop, some areas of those cities would become so costly that residents would be forced to raise their homes up on stilts or just abandon the coastal areas altogether.
It’s a quiet emergency, but one that is on the highest order all over the coastal areas of the United States.
“The final decision on flood maps is high stakes, with the potential of insurance costs skyrocketing for those who are outside of a flood plain now, but who could be placed into a flood plain as a result of the new federal maps,” said City Manager Jay Ash. “We’ve seen how sea level rises and weather pattern changes, all results of global warming, are impacting communities along sea coasts. Chelsea could be impacted, either directly by a weather event or indirectly through insurance cost increases. This is concerning and a reason why we continue to work with others to seek a better understanding of the issues and to determine if an appeal of the maps is warranted.”
City Planner John DePriest – who recently spoke about this very issue with City Councillor Leo Robinson at an MIT symposium – said the new maps also threaten new buildings.
“There is also a potential for an increase in development costs as new buildings will have to conform to flood zone construction standards,” he said. “We are concerned about the potential impact on future development. The new draft floodplain maps, which are based on sea-level rise, show an increase in flooding in parts of the community that do not currently flood, including large parts of our industrial districts. Other, larger cities may have an opportunity to absorb some of the extra flooding due to their geographical size, and direct growth to areas outside the floodplain. Chelsea, which is only two square miles in size, does not have that opportunity.”
Currently, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop were united by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) and encouraged to join Boston’s effort – which is already underway.
MAPC Coordinator Cammy Peterson said she helped the communities catch up to Boston’s effort and to help choose a consultant that could help in analyzing the situation and, if need be, to begin the process of appealing the new flood maps.
In the end, she said, everyone agreed to contract with Woods Hole Group out of Cape Cod.
“One advantage is Wood Hole Group was already working with Boston on the same process and within Suffolk County,” she said. “So now, the same group is working with all four Suffolk County communities and they have all decided appeals would make sense.”
Now that the preliminaries have been decided, Peterson said the next step will be to set up a community officials workshop with FEMA so that a larger discussion and understanding of the maps and their effects can be had.
“Because of the potential impact of the new flood designations, we need to make sure that the methodology used to draw the flood lines is appropriate and accurately identifies potential flood areas,” added DePriest. “We have hired a consultant to work with us to review the new maps and the method in which they were developed, and to help us prepare an appeal if one is warranted.”
Flood insurance and mapping programs began in 1968, and for decades coastal homeowners had subsidized rates from the federal government. The subsidy and rate was based upon maps drawn by order of risk.
However, in 2012, Congress voted to reform the program, which is heavily in debt. The subsidies were stripped and new FEMA maps that incorporated Global Warming models were ordered. Every member of the state’s Congressional Delegation voted for the bill – including Chelsea’s Congressman Michael Capuano.
However, the backlash and unintended consequences from constituents – particularly those in New Orleans – launched a nationwide push back by coastal communities. In Greater Boston, House Speaker Bob DeLeo lobbied heavily in Washington, D.C. to change the 2012 law.
In March, President Barack Obama signed into law a new effort called the Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act. While it did restore grandfathering provisions and put limits on rate increases, it continued to authorize the flood mapping effort using sea level rise predictions as a base. That left areas like Chelsea, Revere, Winthrop and Boston still very vulnerable to new flood zones.
Local officials said they expect preliminary reports on the appeal in August.