By STEVEN GUTKIN
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- At a shelter in Puerto Rico last week, Hillary
Rodham Clinton spoke of a $39 million U.S. grant to rebuild hurricane-ravaged
But two weeks after Hurricane Georges pummeled this U.S. territory, thousands
still languish in schools, community centers and the homes of family and friends --
and her pledge looks like a drop in the bucket.
The cost of getting the homeless into homes will be far greater than virtually
had imagined, probably well beyond $1 billion. And U.S. taxpayers are sure to
foot most of the bill.
``We're talking megabucks,'' said Michael Colon, the Caribbean coordinator
the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Officials originally estimated overall property damage to the island --
roads, public buildings, parks, beaches -- at $2 billion, a figure now believed to be
So far, the effort to solve the homeless crisis has been accompanied by
Officials still don't know how many homeless there are -- or how to give them
Aside from killing three people on the island, Georges destroyed nearly
houses and damaged at least another 60,000, the local Housing Department
estimates. Those left homeless can receive up to $25,000 from the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, as well as $13,500 to buy new appliances and
Puerto Rico authorities now say the FEMA program, which would allow residents
to rebuild their wood homes, may be ill-advised because it will leave new homes
as vulnerable to hurricanes as the old ones.
Gov. Pedro Rosello instead wants federal block grants that, combined with
from Puerto Rico's local budget, would subsidize more expensive concrete homes
located out of harm's way.
Under his plan, hurricane victims would purchase houses worth $65,000 for
$15,000, with mortgage payments of about $100 per month.
``Even though this has been a disaster for Puerto Rico, we should look
at this as
an opportunity to build something better than what we had before,'' explained
Puerto Rico's Housing Secretary, Ana Carmen Alemany.
The plan was presented to Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo when he arrived
Puerto Rico last week with Mrs. Clinton.
``We are banking on having Secretary Cuomo going back to President Clinton
and [FEMA director] James Lee Witt and expressing to them support for this
program,'' Alemany said.
In the meantime, 15,000 Puerto Rican hurricane victims remain holed up
shelters. More are staying with friends and relatives, though no one knows exactly
Concrete decisions on solving their long-term plight have taken a back
seat to the
immediate need to restore water and electricity and provide temporary shelter.
``As of now, there is no program yet,'' admitted Bessie Figueroa, the Puerto
Housing Department's liaison to FEMA.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is crisscrossing the island
replace damaged roofs. The island's Housing Department is providing $1,000
vouchers to purchase building materials. The city of San Juan is handing out $500
checks for groceries.
``We can't wait for the federal government,'' San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald