100 Days After Hurricane Maria This Puertorriqueña Continues Helping Her People In A Major Way

credit: Courtesy of Ariadna Michelle

Across Puerto Rico, twisted metal roofs and scraps of baby cribs, kitchen tables and satellite dishes lie on brown grass and cracked concrete. Just three months ago, these remnants made up colorful houses. Today, Hurricane Maria’s destructive 155-mph winds turned them into debris. Federal relief for those displaced by the September 20 storm has been shoddy, if present at all, leaving countless people throughout the archipelago without shelter, and even more to dwell in unsafe residences that are missing roofs and growing mold. Stepping in where the government has fallen short is Ayuda Legal Huracán María, an access to justice initiative providing free legal services to Puerto Ricans whose properties were affected by the disaster.

The brigade, which started the day after the hurricane hit, is comprised of more than 200 attorneys and 200 law students on the island as well as several additional U.S.-based Puerto Rican legal experts who are volunteering their time and expertise.

“As lawyers, we felt we had to do something, and that is usually done through legal services,” San Juan-based human rights attorney Ariadna Godreau-Aubert, who is the coordinator of Ayuda Legal Huracán María, told FIERCE.

Credit: Ayuda Legal Huracán María

Currently, the team is providing communities throughout Puerto Rico with legal education through Know Your Rights workshops and handouts as well as offering free legal advice and representation to those in need. According to Godreau-Aubert, the biggest demand, and where the group is focusing their efforts at the moment, is on FEMA appeals, claims against FEMA, evictions and family law.

During presidentially-declared disasters, like that in Puerto Rico, FEMA provides support through immediate shelter for those who lost homes as well as temporary housing and home repairs to renters or homeowners. But residents must meet criteria, fill out forms — online — and provide necessary documentation. As a result, the most impacted, those without Internet access or lacking paperwork, are oftentimes not given the aid they deserve.

“A lot of people go to FEMA because they suffered harm to their property or personal belongings, and many times, what we are seeing is FEMA is fighting not to provide assistance by saying the person is not eligible for help. But many of the people consider these decisions wrong and can do an appeal, so we are helping them do that and providing legal representation to those who can’t afford it in the process,” Godreau-Aubert, 32, said.

While there aren’t solid calculations, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of homes in the U.S. territory were damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Many of the people coming to Ayuda Legal Huracán María for help have been denied by FEMA because they lack deeds to their homes. In Puerto Rico, especially in the remote mountainous areas hit hardest by the storms, houses are often passed down through generations, with no legal documentation noting the transfer in ownership.

“We explain to FEMA that a lot of people in Puerto Rico will never have that paperwork, and definitely won’t be able to get it in time for inspection, but that doesn’t mean they don’t own a house and that they don’t need help,” she said.

Credit: Ayuda Legal Huracán María

Additional concerns include non-Spanish-speaking FEMA personnel performing the inspections, illiterate elders signing documents they don’t understand and the lack of Internet and telephone services, which are prohibiting the needy from filling out applications for governmental assistance online and preventing them from following up on claims.

In the U.S., Puerto Rican law students and practicing lawyers are also training to be a part of the brigade, with several planning on traveling to the island to assist and others staying in cities like New York, Orlando and Philadelphia to help climate refugees who have relocated, whether temporarily or permanently, to the contiguous United States.

The group has also teamed up with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a national organization that protects and promotes the civil rights of Latinos in the United States, and recently received some funding from the Open Society Foundation to help them prepare materials and continue to provide free services.

According to Godreau-Aubert, the hourly rate for lawyers in Puerto Rico ranges between $100 to $200, but long, expensive commutes could put the cost even higher for clients from faraway municipalities. For Puerto Ricans — many of whom have been out of work for weeks, can’t access ATMs and don’t have enough cash for much outside of basic necessities, should those items even be available — paying lawyer fees, even when their services are required, is just not feasible.

“We want the people to know they’re not alone,” Godreau-Aubert said. “We want this initiative to be a safe space for people at this time.”

Credit: Ayuda Legal Huracán María

But Godreau-Aubert’s goal for the project is long-term. She would ultimately like for the group to create disaster relief clinics that operate year-round throughout Puerto Rico to provide free legal education, capacity and aid for those impacted by catastrophes on the island and throughout the Caribbean.

For now, in these uncertain times, she is staying flexible, willing to adjust the brigade’s focus and efforts to the people’s needs.

“I just feel grateful that I am able to work with people who want to build in Puerto Rico. I’m part of a group of lawyers and students building something different here by reframing access to justice and what human rights looks like,” she said. “There’s a general feeling of stagnation on the island, so just to be able to move and share and collaborate is a blessing.”

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Let us know of other brigades in Puerto Rico doing great work in the comments!