1,016 days after Hurricane Maria, Housing Dept. starts rebuilding project

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Reinaldo Gómez Rivas and Silvia Soto Ortiz, a married couple for 31 years, are to relocate today to a temporary home in Barrio Mangos in Juncos as their 69-year-old home in Barrio Ceiba Sur will be rebuilt by the island Housing Department under the Home Reparation, Reconstruction and Relocation (R3) Program due to damages after Hurricane Maria.

Although the 69-year-old owner seemed hopeful that the house he inherited from his parents was to be made over in 90 to 180 days, the couple has had to survive in subpar conditions. Their apartment, which was a storage room before the 2017 hurricane devastated the second floor of their wooden house, was refurbished by parishioners of the Rosa de Sarón Pentecostal Church in Las Piedras. However, the household lacked open space, had poor water filtration, a narrow hall and a bathroom with little room for Soto Ortiz, who has mobility issues and must carry a walking stick.

“When we got to the Housing office, we inquired if there was a chance to move into an affordable house,” Gómez Rivas said. “The only option they gave us was to try and find a house that charged no more than a $300 monthly rent. We had to move out and into another house on our own, where we paid rent for nine months with our Social Security money. It wasn’t until our church helped us build this apartment. However, I had to spend more money on strengthening walls and building up a barrier so our apartment would not flood.”

When The Star asked the couple if they received any state or federal aid, Gómez Rivas said that although he received funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he had to wait for five months and it was not enough to rebuild the house. Also, they didn’t have electric power until early March.

Things changed two weeks ago when their case was approved by the island Housing Department and funded by the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program.

“We don’t feel safe here,” Soto Ortiz said of their cramped apartment. “We tried to get help before from the municipality’s Housing office. But nothing happened after our efforts.”

Vázquez Garced: ‘We can’t respond for what happened in the past’ When a member of the press asked if the government would guarantee that a situation like Tu Hogar Renace, a $1.3 billion project found to be deficient in rebuilding homes after Hurricane Maria, would not be repeated, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced said she will make sure that anyone involved in the R3 projects, which cost $3.025 billion in federal funds, will not participate if found to have harmful intentions.

“In the past, many things happened, we can agree. What we can tell Puerto Rico is that under this [Housing] secretary, and this governor, we will make sure that things run responsibly,” Vázquez said. “That contractor and that person who is a part of this program and has the intention to violate any rules or commits any misdeed, they will not come in.”

Meanwhile, Housing Secretary Luiz Fernández Trinchet replied that the current program has different requirements from the previous FEMA-funded project. He added that the R3 project has rigorous protocols and will follow the standards of the Puerto Rico Building Code.

“I cannot speak for Tu Hogar Renace; the governor cannot speak for it either. We were not there at the time,” Fernández Trinchet said. “We are with a program that has completely different codes than FEMA, as this is a federal Housing [and Urban Development] department program. You all have seen the presentations of what we have to do in order to rebuild a house. Our roof sealing [system] is designed to last 10 years, and we must rebuild septic tanks. To tell you that no one is going to steal money, I can’t respond regarding the thousands who will be involved in different contracts.”

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