You won’t find any more shelters in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria survivors. The island closed its shelters for good Friday, March 9, nearly six months since the storm struck the U.S. territory, according to the Puerto Rican Department of Housing.
To be fair, not many people were living in the island’s five shelters by this time. The last data the department provided Earther (back in February) shows just 64 people remained in shelters at the time with no more than 22 people at a single shelter. Damaris Hernandez Mercado, a spokesperson for the housing department, told Earther all the people who were previously sheltered were placed into some form of temporary housing, including Section 8.
The department didn’t tell Earther how the government decided residents no longer needed the shelters, but Mercado did email a statement that noted many residents who were in shelters have returned home. Those who are back home were able to do so thanks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Tu Hogar Renace program, which repairs hurricane-damaged property. However, as the program’s website states, it is “designed only for the property to be safe, functional, and habitable.” The department’s statement did not clarify whether residents were returning to homes whose repairs had concluded or were still ongoing.
However, the fact shelters still even existed this far out from when the natural disaster occurred speaks to how rough Puerto Rico’s recovery process has gone. Shelters are supposed to be short-term, after all.
“Usually, [shelters are] not open this long,” Irwin Redlener, the director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told Earther. “That’s true, but if they need them, they need them.” For example, six months after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, shelters still housed 82 individuals, according to a federal report the Department of Homeland Security released.
“Shelters need to be open as long as people don’t have safe and secure housing,” said Pavani Kalluri Ram, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo who studies natural disasters globally, to Earther.
Ram does note, however, that short-term dependence on shelters is “clearly preferable,” but that decision ultimately comes down to “cost, personnel time, and feasibility,” she told Earther. “There’s a sense of dignity about having your own space.”
Puerto Rico’s housing situation has been dire since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island last year. The department’s secretary, Fernando Gil, has called the situation a “housing crisis”—and for good reason. The hurricane damaged more than a third of the island’s 1.2 million occupied homes, according to Reuters. This reality concerns Redlener because the Puerto Rican government has already proved it doesn’t have the best judgment in its post-Maria recovery efforts.
“Unless there are alternative plans to provide shelter or housing for people, I would think [the Puerto Rican government] would want to keep them open even if it is is a long time to have them open,” he told Earther. “Closing the shelters usually coincides with people having a safe place to live and communities being in the beginning stages of rebuilding.”
Is that the case? Eh, doesn’t seem like it. Not yet at least. Anywhere between 114,000 to 213,000 Puerto Ricans have fled the island to the mainland U.S., estimates the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Why? Because their home has become uninhabitable—be it due to lack of electricity, clean water, or economic opportunities.
Many of those who were lucky enough to avoid shelters entirely ended up in hotels, but that federal funding to cover those costs won’t last forever. No one’s in shelters anymore, but not everyone has returned home. Not everyone will.
Update 3/15/18 11:40 a.m.: The post has been updated to include a new statement from the Puerto Rican Department of Housing that mentions many Puerto Rican residents formerly in shelters have returned to their homes.