SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- At a shelter in Puerto Rico last week,
Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of a $39 million dollar U.S. grant to rebuild
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
anyone 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
for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Officials originally estimated overall property damage to the island --
including roads, public buildings, parks, beaches -- at $2 billion, a figure
now believed to be underestimated.
So far, the effort to solve the homeless crisis has been accompanied by
confusion. Officials still don't know how many homeless there are -- or how
to give them homes.
Aside from killing three people on the island, Georges destroyed nearly
30,000 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 furniture.
Puerto Rico authorities now say the FEMA program, which would allow
residents to rebuild their wood and zinc 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
money from Puerto Rico's local budget, would subsidize more expensive
cement 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
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 in 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 how many.
Concrete decisions on solving their long-term plight have taken a back
to the immediate need to restore water and electricity and provide
"As of now, there is no program yet," admitted Bessie Figueroa, the Puerto
Rico 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," said San Juan Mayor Sila
At a San Juan shelter last week, Calderon was handing out clothes and
checks to hurricane victims when four gunshots rang out.
"Don't panic!" social workers yelled as frightened residents scrambled
The sound of guns isn't unusual in this neighborhood of western San Juan,
notorious for its gang activity, but the shelter inhabitants were especially on
edge after losing their homes and their privacy to Georges.
Sixty-six people were living in this hot community center on rows of cots
three feet apart. Toddlers cried in playpens. Clothes, a few toys and food
wrappers were strewn about. There was one TV, and a few fans.
A woman asked Calderon how long her family would have to stay in the
shelter, and the mayor replied: "I don't know."
A substantial though unknown portion of hurricane victims were squatters
who did not have legal title to the property they lost.
It's not clear how these people would be housed. The FEMA program
excludes them from eligibility; the governor's plan does not.
Mayor Calderon said most of Georges' homeless represent "the other face
of Puerto Rico": unwed mothers, welfare recipients, the unemployed, those
in homes most vulnerable to disaster.
"These are people who are still waiting to participate in the development
we've had over the past 50 years," she said.
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.