Two years after María, many in Puerto Rico 'are still living as if the hurricane happened yesterday'

Outside of the town of Yabucoa, Fermín Pérez keeps his new refrigerator in a box and his new mattress in its packaging. He keeps them stored so they aren't damaged by the water that still leaks from his roof when it rains, despite the aid that came to repair it after Hurricane María made landfall practically in his backyard two years ago.

María made came ashore as a strong Category 4 storm on Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, tearing into his home. Not having the money to make repairs and no family around to help, the 71-year-old man had reached out for aid. Even then, it wasn't until a year later in 2018 when he received electricity after the news organization Metro Puerto Rico brought attention to his story.

The news outlet visited Pérez three times: last year, again when aid arrived within the week and a third time last week.

Fermín Pérez stands in front of his house in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, a year after Hurricane María made landfall as a strong Category 4 storm. The storm had broken his windows, his door and had damaged his roof. A year later, after having asked for aid, no help came until Metro Puerto Rico covered his story. (Metro Puerto Rico/José Encarnación)

When Metro Puerto Rico returned in 2019, Pérez's door, roof and windows had been repaired after María had pummeled the city, though the outlet noted the job had looked rushed. The ceiling leaked when it rained. Pérez's house wasn't one of the thousands of roofless homes still shielded by blue tarp, but mold still clung to the walls, and the living conditions hadn't looked much better than when they had first met Pérez a year ago. They noted that while there is water, electricity and a standing structure, the home that was once there was gone.

Pérez told Metro Puerto Rico that FEMA had given him the fridge and some Americans had been in charge of the infrastructure, but Peréz wasn't living in much better conditions than when the hurricane had hit.

Fermín Pérez lived for about a year without electricity after Hurricane María made landfall in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. (Metro Puerto Rico/José Encarnación)

"Many Puerto Ricans are still experiencing a livelihood or a situation that is very similar to Sept. 21, Sept. 22 after Hurricane Maria. Many Puerto Ricans are still living below blue tarps," Penn State assistant professor of human development and family studies Alexis Santos told AccuWeather. "Many Puerto Ricans are still living as if the hurricane happened yesterday, and we strive and we hope that we can help them get their lives back to normality even if it's two years after the hurricane has happened."

Santos had been a part of a research effort that was run from Penn State with support from individuals from the University of Texas at San Antonio, which published a study in early August of 2018 that contributed additional deaths in the months following María to the death toll. Originally, the Puerto Rican government had said 64 people had died from María. Santos said their estimates had placed them between 1,200 to 1,300 at the time before the official investigation by the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Metro Puerto Rico editor and reporter Ronald Ávila-Claudio, who has been reporting on María since before the storm made landfall, has said that the time that Puerto Rico will take to recover will depend on the money they receive for aid. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that Hurricane María caused about $90 billion in damages.

Recently, Trump falsely claimed in a pair of tweets in July and again in August that Congress had given $92 billion to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief. Although Congress has allocated $42.5 billion to disaster relief for the United States territory, Puerto Rico has only received about $14 billion.

In this Sept. 8, 2018, file photo, Alma Morales Rosario poses for a portrait between the beams of her home being rebuilt after it was destroyed by Hurricane María a year earlier in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Morovis, Puerto Rico. On Friday, May 10, 2019, The Associated Press has found that stories circulating on the internet that Puerto Rico has received $91 billion from Congress for hurricane disaster relief, more than any state in the U.S, are untrue. Congress has approved $41 billion in aid for recovery efforts in the U.S. territory, but only about $11 billion of that aid has been dispersed. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Bureaucracy has also slowed down recovery and has impacted the lives of the people on the island, Ávila said.

"There are still a lot of people today who don't have a roof. There are buildings with blue tarp because the bureaucracy of the housing departments," he said.

Ávila has described the government's response as "negligent," and that they are still fighting for information and to get accountability from the state and federal government.

"We received a lot of aid from outside. I have to be honest, I didn't see a lot of this aid and help in the hands of the people," Ávila said, though admitted that it was difficult to keep tabs on the government's activity while communications had been down.

Ávila first found himself in the dark a few hours after María had hit. He had been reporting in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, on their preparations and had taken shelter at an Emergency Management base when María had struck, taking down communications with it. With no power or way to communicate over long distances, the island was in the dark on the amount of devastation María had caused. Ávila couldn't reach his newsroom, his editors or even his family.

Hurricane María decimated Puerto Rico's power grid, causing the largest blackout in U.S. history. This photo from Dec. 2017 shows a fraction of the destruction caused. (Photo/Dan Vineberg)

"All of the coverage plan was down, so I started to improvise what I could do now to get all the information I could so I could write it all down and get the news to the people," Ávila said.

Only a few hours after María had left the island, Ávila found out from a first responder that a woman in the community had died from the storm. It was the first death he had heard of from María.

He did some investigating, finding his way to her public housing building, where the woman's neighbors directed him to her first-floor apartment. The elderly woman had lived alone. Ávila said she hadn't been able to walk and had died in her bed from the water that had flooded her room.

"When I got down there, the body was on the floor. It was...it was really tough for me, and that's the moment when I started to realize the devastation was really big," Ávila said, who had been 24 at the time. "It was the hardest part of my coverage there in Aguadilla."

It was one of the first of the 2,975 deaths that would illuminate the reality of María.

"Socioeconomics seems to be the driving force here not only for deaths, but for getting back on their feet during recovery or after the hurricane and mitigating the recovery efforts," Santos said. He estimates about 30,000 houses still have blue tarps covering their homes in the place of an absent roof.

In this Oct. 19, 2017, file photo, homes in the Cantera area are covered with FEMA tarps, where buildings from the Hato Rey area stand in the background in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The U.S. government announced Tuesday, April 10, 2018, that it will award $18.5 billion worth of disaster recovery grants to Puerto Rico to help repair homes, businesses and its crumbling power grid as the U.S. territory struggles to recover from Hurricane María. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

In the aftermath, Santos and his research team found that it was the people with low income levels who were more likely to end up suffering from the post-disaster dynamics. Research had also found that older persons were more likely to die post-María, whereas people more likely to leave the island were younger people.

In his research, Santos and his team found that deaths were concentrated in places like nursing homes, where people were already vulnerable to pre-disaster conditions. People with a cardiovascular disease were also more likely to die than someone who didn't have one. People with diabetes also found themselves vulnerable.

After María, "People were leaving the elderly patients in the hospital because if they stayed at home, they were going to face certain death," Santos said.

Nerybelle Perez poses with a portrait of her father, World War II veteran Efrain Perez, who died inside an ambulance after being turned away from the largest public hospital when it had no electricity or water, days after Hurricane Maria passed, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Thursday, June 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

It was the experiences of his mother, a nurse at one of the major hospitals in Puerto Rico, which encouraged him to venture into his research on the original death toll. The numbers hadn't matched her narrative. Her story had been one of devastation, one that had made her sick as she drove to the hospital.

"The hospital was overrun by patients," Santos said.

He describes María both as an environmental event and environmental disaster - an event with stronger impacts than what might be considered normal and that is tied to the environment and climate.

"This was the worst hurricane I have seen in my life," Ávila said, having experienced a few on the island before.

In this December 2017 photo, debris is piled at the side of the road as residents begin to clean up the destruction caused by Hurricane María. Blue tarp still covers thousands of homes even two years after the storm. (Photo/Dan Vineberg)

Seeing the devastation of buildings collapsed and overturned and listening to the stories from the people in Aguadilla after the hurricane, Ávila eventually was brought to the point where he could no longer stay in the city. He needed to know about his family.

"When I started to find all these buildings that were down or houses that were moved and all the people without anything, because people lost everything, I yelled, I said I have to go back to my house and my home to see my mom," he said.

In this Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, file photo, the foundation of a heavily damaged house stands amid broken trees in the mountains after the passing of Hurricane María in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Morovis, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa,File)

After driving nearly the entire length of the island, Ávila found his family was safe in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. He continues to cover the impacts of María, despite the psychological challenges it has presented.

"The coverage of the emergency process of the response of the government, it was really difficult for us journalists here in Puerto Rico," Ávila said. "I went six months without power in my apartment, so I was covering this, I was visiting the island, I was talking with people that lost everything and when I get back to my house, I was living that too. It was really stressful for us. It was a psychological challenge for us journalists to cover it."

People across Puerto Rico pulled blue tarp over their homes in the place of the roofs that had been blown away or demolished by María. Two years later in late August, Puerto Rico and its 30,000 blue tarp-covered houses braced for a hit from Dorian. The storm took mercy upon the island.

The people of Puerto Rico are well aware of where they are and the probability of another hurricane hitting the island. Ávila said that now they know what to prepare for.

"The people know that there's the probability that we have to save ourselves," he said. "There is no one that is going to go up to your house and help you."