What news have you read about post-Hurricane Fiona recovery in Puerto Rico? Probably not much, if any. The fast-moving pace of news coverage here in the States hops from disaster to disaster, from war to war, through and around sports, political events, and entertainment. Any news can grow cold, stale, and forgotten almost immediately after it trends, but Puerto Rico generally gets short shrift in mainland coverage—unless it’s a major disaster.
Yet, as seen with Hurricane Maria in 2017, followed by Fiona in 2022, soon after catastrophic events, there is little or no coverage. It often feels like mainland residents are reminded Puerto Rico exists only whenever someone wants to point to Donald Trump lobbing paper towels into a crowd post-Maria.
The brutal reality for residents in so many areas? The recovery process has not been completed, and in others, it hasn’t even started. Even major Puerto Rican news outlets aren’t tracking the ongoing situation for the island’s poorer sectors.
Awareness of Puerto Rico news is made even more difficult because the vast majority of news from the island, in print and televised, is in Spanish, which naturally excludes non-Spanish-speaking or -reading audiences. Those audiences include a significant percentage of second- and third-generation Latinos, as well as a big chunk of mainland Puerto Ricans.
Thanks to the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism) in Puerto Rico, we do have news of key obstacles facing people on the island who have been prevented from receiving post-Fiona governmental aid—all due to their homes not having street numbers.
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From CPI journalist Laura M. Quintero:
Those Living on Unnamed Streets in Puerto Rico Are Invisible
Days after Hurricane Fiona hit in September 2022, Ordaliz Pizarro, 39, went to the Del Valle AIC Church in her Colobó community in Loíza. There, a group of municipal employees and volunteers were helping residents filling out the application for assistance for critical needs. She waited patiently in line for about an hour and a half. When her turn came up, she could not complete the form, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) system said that someone else had already filed an application using that same address.
Ordaliz, like hundreds of other people in Loíza, a poor town in the northeastern coast with a very strong African heritage and population, lives on an unnamed road in the Colobó community. Twelve years ago, she and her husband built a wooden house with a zinc roof next to her mother’s and uncle’s homes. None have a number or letter assigned to identify the house . She, like many other people in her situation, uses a relative’s mailbox number in the absence of a home number, with the limitation that mailboxes are also shared, sometimes, by dozens of people from the same family.
“I filled it out three times and because of the address, I never got it ,” said the woman, mother of three and grandmother of two babies.
No federal or local agency has an exact figure of how many people are in the same situation of not having a physical address in Puerto Rico, but estimates from the Initiative for Civic Address System Assessment in Puerto Rico (iCasaPR) with information from the U.S. Postal Service, calculate around 300,000 homes. This figure represents nearly one million people, about a third of Puerto Rico’s population, according to the average number of persons per household and the population estimate from the Census Bureau.
Ciencia Puerto Rico reported about the iCasaPR initiative to serve those hundreds of thousands of people back in 2020.
Local Team Creates Tools to Improve Housing Addresses in Puerto Rico
The Initiative for Civic Address Systems Assessment in Puerto Rico, iCasaPR, a local nonprofit organization, has begun a project to tackle the challenges of address infrastructure in Puerto Rico and its effect on disadvantaged communities. This project, called Puerto Rico Civic Address Vulnerability Evaluation, PRCAVE, is the first systematic evaluation of address infrastructure in Puerto Rico. PRCAVE is backed by a generous donation from the non-profit organization Filantropía Puerto Rico.
Raúl Ríos-Díaz, president of iCasaPR, who served as manager of the Address Management Office for the US Postal Service, was a key figure in creating uniformity in the addresses of almost one million homes on the island, “In Puerto Rico there are still deficiencies in the addresses for a large percentage of the dwellings, especially in rural areas. The problem of civic addresses on the island makes a large part of our population invisible in statewide data systems and in the federal space.”
Puerto Rico has struggled for decades with deficiencies in its address infrastructure. In some municipalities, over 60% of the population reside in structures that lack a valid civic address, which can be used by emergency services to locate residents in a timely manner or accurately locate an address on a map using geospatial technology. Hurricanes Irma and María exposed the tragic consequences of this situation during the management of emergency operations, by the inability to secure funds for individuals and communities, and the failures of federal, state and local entities to implement the necessary responses in a timely and effective manner.
More from The Opportunity Project:
Standardizing Addressing in Puerto Rico to Improve Emergency Response
Puerto Rico Address Database Operations Support (PRADOS) helps municipalities and communities in Puerto Rico enhance their address data infrastructure to improve emergency response.
Puerto Rico does not have a centralized database of addresses with geospatial coordinates for its 78 legally independent municipios.
Since there is no centralized database of addresses for Puerto Rico and most municipios do not have address data that follow federal standards, there are significant inconsistencies between federal, state and local datasets. To complicate the issue, addresses in Puerto Rico have unique characteristics that require special handling, and over half of the population of Puerto Rico rely on rural or post office box addresses that cannot be geolocated.
Without a reliable database of addresses, local and federal leaders are unable to effectively manage catastrophic events.
During catastrophic events such as hurricanes and earthquakes, residences and businesses cannot be located using traditional means of address navigation since structures, street signs, and landmarks no longer exist. Without addresses that can be geolocated, emergency respondents aren’t able to locate households affected by disasters or effectively respond to calls for help. An easily accessible database of reliable, accurate, and uniform address point data can meet the immediate needs of emergency responders and communities in crisis.
Associated Press correspondent Dánica Coto, who reports regularly from Puerto Rico, raised this issue close to four years ago, pointing out that the lack of addresses on homes presents life-threatening dangers.
Navigating by mango trees, pink houses in rural Puerto Rico
CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — Firefighters in this city near Puerto Rico’s capital cheered when they recently got updated maps that include rural neighborhoods, confessing they sometimes had to rely on taxi drivers for directions during emergencies. That’s because more than 300,000 homes on the island have no formal address.
Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities and dozens of government agencies still use separate databases that use different names for the same streets or list the same addresses in varying ways, such as 1013 or 10-13. “It’s like the Tower of Babel,” Ríos said.
Four years ago, a young boy died in San Juan because it took an ambulance 15 minutes to find the apartment in a complex that did not have a standardized address, said Nazario Lugo, the president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Emergency Responders who was the city’s emergency management director at the time. And the mother could not go outside to flag down emergency responders because she was following CPR directions from the 911 operator, he said.
Here’s an interview Coto did post-Fiona, with “PBS News Hour.” Note her emphasis at the end of the interview: Puerto Ricans are tired of being lauded for their disaster “resilience.”
More about the nonprofit featured in the segment, Taller Salud:
Taller Salud is a community based feminist organization dedicated to improving women’s access to health care, to reducing violence within the community and to encourage economic growth through education and activism. Founded in 1979, Taller Salud is an independent, non-government based, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.
Here’s a link to their English-language webpage, and a video posted four months post-Fiona.
From the YouTube video notes:
We have been claiming for a Fair Recovery in Puerto Rico for the past 5 years. In December 2021, we carried out a Housing Study in Loíza. When the hurricane season began in 2022, we released its results with evidence showing that 100% of the homes in the 7 censused communities were in conditions of vulnerability to a natural phenomenon and 30.6% were still roofed with blue tarps. We publicly denounced the lack of support from the government to ensure our right to decent housing, we have been active collecting endorsements and sending letters to the Department of Housing for the immediate repair of homes. Now, 4 months later, with no response from government entities, we are received the impact of Hurricane Fiona.We are attentive to the government response to the emergency and will ensure that the voices of the most affected people are heard. A fair recovery is not possible without participation, democracy and questioning of structures.From Taller Salud we demand:- The immediate cancellation of the abusive contract of LUMA Energy.- Immediate adjustment in the electricity bill for consumers.- A governance model that maintains the electricity service as a public good.- An urgent focus on the restructuring of current energy generation to renewable energy.Until then, we will keep working hard as first responders and demand for our right to a dignified life.
While writing this, I admit that I had no idea that our federal government has an ongoing committee—the Federal Geographic Data Committee.
“an organized structure of Federal geospatial professionals and constituents that provide executive, managerial, and advisory direction and oversight for geospatial decisions and initiatives across the Federal government.”
Part of the committee’s effort is focused on a National Address Database. From a 2014 paper:
Government and business alike depend on addresses to provide essential services. Street addresses are collected and used every minute of every day for emergency response; the consumption of commercial goods and services; mail and package delivery; public and private utility management; voting; taxation; licensing; financial lending and real estate transactions; road maintenance and transit services; market analysis; environmental stewardship; economic development and land use planning; and many other purposes.
Address data are required across all levels of government, as well as within the business community. A single, highly accurate national database would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of business processes within governmental agencies that currently use address data that has been collected from multiple sources.
Addresses are a cornerstone of our social, commercial, environmental and political systems. The better the address data, the more efficiently and effectively these systems function and the more services that can be provided to improve quality of life for all.
Though this committee and other governmental agencies are aware of and looking at solutions to the problems that address-less Puerto Ricans face by essentially “not being on the map,” those solutions still haven’t been found.
As CPI reported in their story:
In April 2023, the government opened an informal bid to develop a geographic information database. It will include a mapping portal for the Geospatial Framework Program (GeoFrame) subsidized with CDBG recovery and mitigation funds.
Housing Secretary William Rodríguez, said the bid, released in April 2023, is still under evaluation by a committee.
I wonder when this will be resolved. We’ve already seen how a lack of addresses has been used to suppress the Native American vote. How long will rural Puerto Ricans have to suffer?
Join me in the comments to discuss further, and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.