MARY REICHARD, HOST: One year ago today, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, wreaking unprecedented havoc on the island of 3.3 million people.
Recently Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló increased the official death count from 64 to an estimate of nearly 3-thousand after an internal report showed many more people died from secondary factors, like a lack of access to medical care.
Notably, the methodology represents a major change in the way storm casualties are counted. Here’s FEMA Director Brock Long.
LONG: The numbers are all over the place. FEMA doesn’t count deaths. And, like, if you take what’s going on with Florence. The deaths that are verified by the local county coroner are the ones that we take.
President Trump accused Democrats of inflating and falsely reporting the numbers to make him look bad. But counting indirect storm deaths has wider implications for government response to disasters. For example, should relief efforts expand to include more long-range assistance?
While the political back and forth continues, aid organizations have been hard at work on the island to rebuild and restore hope. WORLD Radio’s Kristen Flavin brings us this report.
KRISTEN FLAVIN, REPORTER: One year ago, Hurricane Maria hovered menacingly just off Puerto Rico’s shore.
AUDIO: [Newscast, Hurricane Maria]
The Category 4 storm made landfall on the island September 20th, 2017, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma raked over the island, claiming three lives.
Maria brought 155 mile-per-hour winds and caused widespread devastation and chaos.
AUDIO: [Sound of Hurricane Maria]
Irma left 80,000 residents without power as Maria approached. The island’s aging infrastructure made its power grid particularly susceptible to damage from the storm. Maria completely destroyed what was left of the grid, plunging all of Puerto Rico’s three million residents into darkness.
And the Puerto Rican people lost more than just power. Thousands had their homes flooded—most lost their roofs.
Samaritan’s Purse has had a team on the ground in Puerto Rico since day one—and they’re still working.
Dan Stevens is the group’s field director on the island.
STEVENS: The level of devastation from this storm was completely massive. We hear a lot on the news, but actually being here and seeing it, the fact that the storm was so large and it really affected the entire island made it so it was much more difficult for the island to recover because pretty much all the infrastructure on the island was affected.
Samaritan’s Purse crews have focused on replacing blue tarps with real roofs.
AUDIO: [Sound of saws and working on homes]
The teams have repaired 300 permanent roofs so far this year. But Stevens believes the group will exceed its goal of 400 roof repairs by the end of the year.
STEVENS: There are so many strong Christian leaders and strong churches already established here on the island that it makes our work a lot easier, because we can come in, and we can find churches, congregations that are already motivated to go out and help in their communities.
Other Christian groups, including Convoy of Hope, have also aided the rebuilding efforts. Jeff Nene is the national spokesman for the organization.
NENE: We usually do food, water, emergency supplies, like hygiene kits, flood buckets, a baby products, things like that.
But after raising more money than anticipated for the relief efforts in Puerto Rico, Convoy of Hope began partnering with church teams from the United States to help families in neighborhoods and villages where the storm completely destroyed homes.
NENE: We’ve got two villages, the two communities that we focus on. And then we’ve been able to get a lot of a product donated, like a drywall and insulation and different building supplies.
Even a year after the storm, many Puerto Ricans still haven’t been able to repair major damage to their homes. Stevens has witnessed first-hand the emotional lift a new roof provides for a family.
STEVENS: They were very skeptical. They were like, you know, a lot of people have come, a lot of people have promised us a lot of things, and they’re just skeptical that we would actually do what we said we would do. And then the next day we showed up with just a crew of people, a crew of church volunteers, contractors, trucks of materials, and really within two days we had completely rebuilt their roof. And you could just tell they were just so overwhelmed.
Stevens says a feeling of hopelessness has started setting in for some Puerto Ricans who have not yet received aid or who have had aid promised but never delivered. Despite those hardships, Puerto Ricans are determined to press on.
STEVENS: Everywhere you go, we’re still finding people everyday that are living under a piece of plastic for their roof because they lost their roof nearly a year ago in the hurricane and they’re still just living under a piece of plastic. But the spirit of resilience is just so, so strong on this island.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Kristen Flavin.