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Man holds out hope he'll one day be able to rebuild home destroyed by Hurricane Maria

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
April 18, 2019, 11:16:25 AM EDT

VEGA ALTA, PUERTO RICO -- What should you do when you have lost everything? Start all over again. What do you do when memories take you to a dark and painful place in your life? Continue living, driven by the desire to be reborn from the ashes.

Those are the decisions made by Giovanni Barreto, a 25-year-old resident of the municipality of Vega Alta who, like thousands of Puerto Ricans, lost his home and a large part of his life in September 2017 when Hurricane Maria blasted the small island as a Category 4 storm.

Barreto, who lives just minutes away from the neighborhood where the world-renowned Puerto Rican artist Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up, watched in despair as his wooden-crafted housed was torn apart by the powerful winds of the cyclone.

"The wind made the house tremble. It was horrible. [The hurricane] ripped the windows and we were all the night drawing water from the house," he recalled in an interview with AccuWeather.

Gio Barreto

Giovanni Barreto tells how his life has been after Hurricane Maria. The pink house, located in the heart of Maricao neighborhood in Vega Alta, was the place where he passed the cyclone along with his family. To the left in the background, among the bushes, are the remains of what was his home.

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A year-and-a-half later, his life has taken several steps forward. Barreto's fighting spirit and desire to excel have allowed him to cope with the aftermath of the cyclone, including material losses, the death of his grandmother and the eventual migration of his mother to the United States mainland.

"There is a lot of help still needed here and for many people in the neighborhood. At least they helped us with $2,000," Barreto said, referring to aid he received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "There are other people that did not receive anything," the young man reflected. Barreto hangs on to the hope of being able, someday, to rebuild his old residence.

Cases like Barreto's are the exception not the rule for thousands of Puerto Ricans who made claims to the FEMA in the weeks and months after the storm hit, only to see their petitions denied.

According to data provided by the non-profit Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, 62% of the requests for assistance for the repair of homes were denied or not answered by FEMA due to the lack of ownership of the affected homes.

To remedy this situation, among other things, FEMA has been providing support to the local government to provide property titles to the more than 48,000 people who do not have this legal document in order to help expedite repairs on the thousands of affected homes.

That's what Justo Hernández, alternate federal coordinator of FEMA in Puerto Rico, said when he was interviewed in January by AccuWeather, explaining that the agency has provided $2.3 billion for individuals and households, as well as $ 5.3 million for infrastructure improvements.

"Everything we are providing is validated two, three times. The work we do is validated according to the policies of the agency, and the money that we are going to reimburse is a process in which they must provide evidence of what was spent," Hernández responded after being questioned by AccuWeather about the delay in disbursement of funds.

"FEMA's assistance is not to build a home for you. FEMA will not take care of the damages that are not found in your housing area, FEMA will not take care of the rooms that you do not occupy," added Hernández, an experienced coordinator who has been deployed to over 205 events throughout his career.

Justo Hernandez FEMA

Justo Hernández, Alternate Federal Coordinator of FEMA in Puerto Rico, discuss the agency's work in the island. (Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

The issue of the response of the federal agency on the island, as well as the allocation of monetary items to help in the restoration of the country, have been topics that have been the subject of debate among local and federal agencies.

Last week, President Donald Trump rekindled this debate by saying that $91 billion has been granted to Puerto Rico for recovery, "more money than was previously obtained by a hurricane."

However, according to a fact-check by The Associated Press, at the moment only $11 billion has been granted from the federal government's coffers.

Looking back over the past 18 months, Hernandez said that FEMA's response in Puerto Rico has been historic, and that has allowed them to identify the most fragile points of disaster response.

"One of the lessons of Hurricane Maria is that we should be better prepared for the response. We had 90 generators, now we have 700 generators; we had food for 300,000 people, now we adjust the product to feed 3 million people," Hernández said, adding that FEMA's mission in Puerto Rico could last up to 10 years.

Hernández also said that in the past 18 months, FEMA has re-evaluated the response and disaster response plan, as well as the action plan of other agencies that provide assistance in the wake of an emergency or disaster.

Likewise, and despite the efforts that FEMA has made in Puerto Rico, Hernández cautioned that the island is far from being prepared to resist any other natural disaster, both in terms of infrastructure and in terms of citizen response.

"Preparation is a permanent process. There is no culture of culture preparedness in PR, not only for hurricanes but also for earthquakes," he said. "We are not ready. We can do the best we can, but 'ready' is not a word in our future."

Listen to AccuWeather reporter Jonathan Petramala and AccuWeather and AccuWeather en Español's journalist Manuel Crespo Feliciano, discuss their experience covering the special series "Puerto Rico: The Art of Recovery":

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