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.