Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims

by Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, Inc.
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims
Offer Legal Aid to Puerto Rico Earthquake Victims

We thank you for your donation to our Offer Legal Aid to Earthquake Victims Project, which we began last year in January, after a 4.6 magnitude earthquake struck southwestern Puerto Rico. As you may recall, the quake caused great damage as have the hundreds of aftershocks and smaller quakes that continue in the region until today.

We can proudly attest to the fact that more than 350 disaster-related services were provided to individuals and families in need, victims of the earthquakes, during the past 11 months. Clearly, the pandemic changed the way we delivered services, but we were able, for the most part, to achieve the project goals and objectives as best as possible given the appearance of the Covid-19 health emergency.

Your contribution was central to our successful completion of the project, while also allowing Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico to become a member of the GlobalGiving family. Being a part of GlobalGiving allows us to seek more widespread, global support with which to meet the critical civil legal services challenges facing Puerto Rico’s most impoverished communities. For that we are very grateful to you.

As we shift our focus to Covid-related economic, housing and social problems, rest assured that earthquake disaster-related services will continue to be available to the communities most affected by the tremors and individual survivors will be continuously served.

We invite you to continue to support our work. You can visit our website servicioslegales.org, or our social media channels to keep abreast of Legal Service’s response to shifting client needs as a result of this evolving, dynamic economic and healthcare crisis, as well as other critical needs and problem areas.

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When we conceived the project to offer services to those affected by the dreaded earthquakes that impacted the southwestern part of the island, COVID-19 was not on the horizon, and the length and devastating course of the pandemic was totally unanticipated.  Needless to say, we have not yielded in our efforts to continue to serve the earthquakes survivors, but the context had made reaching our quantitative and qualitative goals a daunting task.  Below, our progress in the past few months.

From the beginning of this year, as improvised shelters appeared throughout many areas of the island, our efforts to help the earthquakes survivors algo began.  Our personnel in the branch office in the southern city of Ponce were the first to respond to the call to help survivors, even though, they had also suffered the impact of the earthquakes.

After a declaration for major disaster was issued for 33 of the 78 municipalities in the island, FEMA established mobile Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) in them. Our previous experiences with disastrous hurricanes had shown that the need for legal assistance is an essential and primary service to secure assistance from FEMA and for other legal problems that arise after disasters strikes.  Survivors must prove ownership or occupancy of the affected property they claim assistance for, domestic violence increases, and custody issues surface, among other legal problems. These issues require legal advice and counsel, sworn statements, declarative statements, or other legal procedures. Also, denial of assistance by FEMA or insufficient assistance brings forward the need for legal help with appeals. Therefore, we immediately coordinated a weekly schedule of visits to provide in-person services in those mobile DRC’s. Staff attorneys from different PRLS service centers delivered legal services on site.   

After a few weeks on the field, due to the coronavirus, a mandatory lockdown and curfew order was issued in Puerto Rico. All DRCs were closed. Our services shifted to telework. Ample outreach efforts continued in the media and social media platforms to inform of the continuation of our remote services.

Even in those dire conditions, we exceeded our set objective by providing 163 earthquake-related services from March up to October 26, 2020, benefiting 345 people.  Such is the case of Mr. Lugo, an 80-year old veteran in fragile health, who was in need of a durable power of attorney so that his daughter could represent him and continue the FEMA application for benefits to repair their house in the town of Yauco, damaged by the quakes.  Or the case of doña Carmen, a 73-year old woman from Ponce, who received $800 for rent but had received nothing to repair her damaged house and came to us for help with an appeal. Another example of cases we served is that of Ms. Millan, mother of three underage children, whose husband became verbally abusive since moving to a refuge after the tremors and later hit her.  She came to PRLS needing our help with a protective order and a divorce.

Many people, such as Mr. Pacheco from Ponce or Mr. Feliciano from San Sebastián, came seeking help with deeds of construction (acta de edificación) to prove their ownership and occupancy to be able to receive FEMA’s aid. This has been one of the most common disaster services offered since the dual hurricanes of 2017 because it is needed to apply for aid.

As we enter the 10th month since the major earthquake, with thousands still living in precarious situations, we recommit to doing our best under trying and challenging circumstances to address one of so many stressors and tragedies, one of which has been the earthquakes and their unending aftershocks, affecting the people of southern Puerto Rico.

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In the morning of January 7th, 2020, Puerto Rico woke up with a 6.4 earthquake that violently shook the island. For approximately two weeks before, minor quakes had impacted the southern part of the island affecting and weakening many structures, houses and schools. In Puerto Rico, public schools are used as shelters after natural disasters, being the most recent, Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. All electric power and running water systems failed for many days. To the dismay of all, many schools were almost completely destroyed by the earthquakes and the ones left standing, had a design flaw that made them a safety hazard. Improvised shelters emerged throughout the interior, south and southwestern part of the island. These shelters served as the new home for thousands that feared the many earthquakes that followed. The situation was a complete chaos.

The governor of Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency and on January 16th the President of the United States declared a major disaster for 33 of the 78 municipalities. FEMA established mobile Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) in those 33 municipalities. Consider that this occurred just a few months after closing the DRCs opened to assist hurricanes survivors. As earthquakes continued, continuous damage to structures worsened the already dire psychological and emotional health of Puerto Ricans. Our Ponce branch office personnel were the first to respond to the call to help survivors. It's important to point that our employees suffered the earthquakes, they had to set aside their own fears to help out other survivors. Our Sabana Grande branch office suffered damages and we had to vacate the premises. Earthquakes continue, on June 28 almost 20 were registered, a situation that is daunting even to the most renowned scientists.

In order to apply for FEMA benefits, survivors must prove ownership or occupancy of the affected property they claim assistance for. This process asks for legal advice and counsel, sworn statements, declarative statements and other legal procedures.

We started to assist survivors since day one. Our personnel visited camp sites and scheduled daily visits to FEMA DRC. We have provided legal assistance to almost 163 families since March 1st to June 16th. Thus exceeding the objective of tis project.  Nonetheless, due to COVID-19, on March 15th the governor established a mandatory lockdown for Puerto Rico including a curfew that halted all economic, government and private activities. The lockdown restrictions have been eased out, but normalization of activities is still underway. This includes FEMA DRCs slowly reopening with an appointment system and limiting services that liaison agencies like us may provide. 

Since March 24th we started teleworking to provide services to our clients including those affected by the earthquakes. Outreach efforts continued in TV, radio and social media to inform of the continuations of our services via remote work. Our online application and call center are fully operational, including a recently added after-hours answering service. The services provided to survivors include assistance for initial applications and also filling appeals due to denials of assistance or insufficient assistance by FEMA.

One of the most dramatic cases we have seen is that of a person with a mortgage on her house that was completely destroyed by the earthquakes. FEMA identified the property with a red badge meaning it's unsafe and unlivable. Client sought our legal counsel on her particular situation since she had to move to a safe house and is unable to pay mortgage on the damaged property. She is now waiting for FEMA's determination in order to start the process with the hazard insurance of the property.  

One particular case is that of a person whose house was severely damaged by the earthquakes and FEMA denied assistance because the owner had insurance on the property. The continuous quakes are affecting the already weak structure. Their emotional health is deeply affected and his wife, who is a cancer patient, is deteriorating. An appeal was presented while determination between FEMA and the insurance is settled in order for the client to repair his property and hoping for a better life for both of them.

Cases requiring notarial services to prove that a property exists in a determined plot in order to complete the applications to FEMA are common. Many other cases require sworn statements and affidavits to support the information on the application for FEMA assistance. This is the most common situation since property and ownership rights in Puerto Rico are established through our Civil Code of Spanish roots and more than 100 years old, while FEMA's regulations and Stafford Act is based on the US common law system. Both legal bases differ and have been the main obstacle for survivors in Puerto Rico to receive assistance. In other cases, the clients require assistance to submit appeals, including supporting documents, contractor estimates and even remote inspections by FEMA. Appeals have a sixty-day term to be submitted. Some of them require intricate legal analysis and work.

We expect to resume in person services as soon as FEMA reopens the DRCs.  Meanwhile, remote service is our primary way of providing assistance and coordination with FEMA has proven very effective to our clients with this approach. Appeals for FEMA assistance will probably increase in the near future and thus legal services will be essential.

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Organization Information

Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, Inc.

Location: San Juan - Puerto Rico
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @slprinc
Project Leader:
Alejandro Figueroa
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Funded Project!

Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.
   

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