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.