Puerto Rico Nervously Prepares for Hurricane Season: ‘What if Another One Comes?’


“The limitation we had with Maria is we had no cash to burn,” said the governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló.

Emergency managers and business leaders also are concerned about the logistics of getting aid into Puerto Rico. Maria created a bottleneck at the Port of San Juan, which slowed everything from food to electrical poles.

“What am I most worried about?” Mr. Byrne said. “A ship sinks in the channel in San Juan, and we can’t bring anything.”

Manuel Reyes Alfonso, executive vice president of MIDA, the island’s food industry association, said wholesale and retail businesses continued to experience delays in receiving cargo. “We are not where we’d like to be, or where we should be,” he said.

He worries about a trucker shortage and about slow fuel delivery for generators. Puerto Rico had fuel after Maria, but no easy way to get it to people, leading to endless lines at gas stations and a black market for diesel sales. FEMA had to bring in a fuel barge for its operations.

Food could also be scarce again, Mr. Reyes said, because Puerto Rico continues to impose a tax on inventories. Eliminating the tax could increase food stores to an average of 37 days from 26, according to a survey that the food association conducted of its members in February. A legislative effort to do away with the tax has stalled, Mr. Reyes said, in part because lawmakers have yet to figure out how to make up for the lost revenue.

Photo

Puerto Rico officials worry that the island remains vulnerable to another storm because repairs to the power grid have been slow in some areas, including Las Piedras.

Credit
Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Rodrigo Masses, president of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association, said he had advised businesses to double their fuel storage capacity, keep their generators in shape and designate an emergency contact off the island to relay information in the event cellphone service fails again.

“We’re still not out of the crisis. If we’re hit by another hurricane like this one, we’re going to lose power again. We’re going to lose connectivity again,” he warned. “But the private sector is going to be much better prepared.”

Once the Corps of Engineers departs, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa, will be tasked with completing unfinished repairs to the power grid. At a hearing last week of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in Washington, lawmakers sounded skeptical that Prepa, which has come under fierce scrutiny over its early response to the storm, is up to the job. Representative González-Colón has asked FEMA to extend the Corps’ stay.

“We sure want to know that you really are ready,” Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told Prepa’s new chief, Walter Higgins, at the hearing.

“We feel that we are ready,” Mr. Higgins said. But, he added, “I don’t doubt that we will have some growing pains.”

In Las Piedras, which sits on the hills south of El Yunque National Forest, people who have electricity say it goes out often. “If a little bit of wind blows through, we will lose power,” said Roberto Rosado, 53, who still has metal shutters on his sliding doors. “We just lost power now. This is an everyday occurrence.”

Mayor Miguel López, who is known as Micky, recently blocked two of the three power crews from leaving his town. “There was no other option,” said Mr. López, whose unorthodox strategy succeeded in keeping the linemen at work.

His director of emergency management, Xavier Muñoz, said the one upside of Maria was that it had scared residents into taking hurricane plans seriously.

“Shelters are going to get full,” he predicted. “I have 220 cots right now, and I think that’s not going to be enough.”

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Built to Flood: Brutal Choice in Houston: Sell Home at a Loss or Face New Floods


Almost every day, Ms. Micu weighed her choices. Some days, she was sure she would stay. The house was in a safe neighborhood, roomy with a swing set in the backyard. Before the storm, she was even planning an addition. Other days, she knew moving was her only choice. Both options were expensive. Selling meant taking a big hit: She paid $183,000 for the house six years ago and figured it was not worth much more than half of that now. But for as long as they lived in their temporary apartment, she was paying rent and a mortgage. FEMA gave her about $16,000, but the renovation bids were all around $70,000.

By the time the four-bedroom house passed a mold test in February, Ms. Micu was thinking that she might split the difference. Move her family elsewhere, but keep the house as a rental. “With my son’s immune system, I can’t have a situation where the mold is a trigger,” said Ms. Micu, a Houston native whose parents are Filipino immigrants. “I can’t take the chance.”

Something else was nagging Ms. Micu. She wondered how the subdivisions could have been built in a reservoir. And if they had to be sacrificed, shouldn’t the homeowners be compensated?

“This pushed our lives in another path,” she said. “How could we have known that we would return from Dallas and practically have to start over?”

The questions are what pushed her to look for a law firm. In September, she became one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal class-action suit against the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Harvey took away my photo album with pictures from every year of my life. It took so many things. It took the purse that my husband bought me as a gift. He spent three months looking for it,” she said.

“Harvey took away my sense of security, but so did the Army Corps of Engineers. What happened to us was wrong.”

Starting Over

When Paulette Delynn Archer, 70, greets a visitor in the doorway of her one-story brick house, she is framed by large picture windows that reveal the emptiness inside, where flooding and renovation have left little more than wood studs between the front door and the back patio.

“Come in, let me show you the house,” Ms. Archer offered in a cheery voice that soon gave way to silence. “Well, this used to be my house. Now it’s just a shell.”

Ms. Archer had once delighted in having guests over to see her four-bedroom home, where everything was the color of soft gold or pumpkin. This is where she had raised her only son, where her husband and mother spent their final days, where she had planned to spend her remaining days. But the four feet of mud and water that gushed through the house had demanded something radically different.

Two decades ago, Ms. Archer and her husband had paid roughly $200,000 for the house and watched it appreciate to more than $300,000. She said it would cost well over $100,000 to renovate the house and her FEMA grant would only cover a small fraction.

Video

How a Community Was Sacrificed to Save Houston

After Hurricane Harvey hit, these communities, built in what is called a flood pool, were sacrificed to save the city of Houston. We followed homeowners as they decided whether to cut their losses or rebuild, knowing it could happen again.


By LESLYE DAVIS, RAY WHITEHOUSE and ERIC MAIERSON on Publish Date March 19, 2018.


Photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

In the mornings, while staying at a La Quinta Inn, Ms. Archer would make lists in a blue three-ring binder of items lost, mostly items that came to her in her dreams. “I finally stopped trying to sum up my entire life. It was just too stressful. But that list told me that as much as I loved my house, there was no way out of this but to sell,” said Ms. Archer, who spent the first part of her career as a flight attendant then became a police officer for the Port of Houston Authority. “I couldn’t get a loan at my age and with no job. How would I pay it back?”

She had lost everything once before, as a teenager in a house fire. The crushing loss felt the same; the inability to recover felt far different.

Like other homeowners, Ms. Archer said she had no idea the house was built in a reservoir. She was told over and over that she did not need flood insurance, she said. Two or three times she purchased it anyway and then let the policy expire.

Three years earlier, she had taken out a reverse mortgage, which allows homeowners over 62 years old to convert equity into cash. After the flood, her house was worth less than the loan balance. It left her in a terrible bind. “I am sitting here thinking that I am not going to be able to get out of this situation,” she said.

Interactive Graphic

How One Houston Suburb Ended Up in a Reservoir

Most residents whose homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey had no clue that their gated community was built in an area prone to such damage in extreme storms.



OPEN Interactive Graphic


She eventually negotiated with the lender to offer the house as a short sale for $125,000. Earlier this month, Ms. Archer closed on the sale and walked away for good. Now fearful of floods and the sound of hard rain, she plans to move near a nephew in Dallas, where she will re-enter the job market 10 years after her retirement.

“There is no way I could have imagined I would be starting over at this point in my life,” she said, then sighed deeply. “I know everything will be O.K. Eventually.”

Staying Home

On a fall afternoon, as they were in the garage sorting the few salvageable pieces — the roar of trucks carting debris in the distance — Mr. Swanson turned to Ms. Swanson, his wife of 24 years.

“I don’t want to leave. Do you?” he blurted out. Ms. Swanson shook her head. Neither did she.

For the Swansons, rebuilding was the only choice. They knew it would be hard, but this was home.

Instead of returning to work, Mr. Swanson pitched in on the repairs. “For now,” Ms. Swanson said, “it make more sense for Jeff to be home helping with the house rather than to be on a job making $12 an hour.” The couple also bought flood insurance.

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Built to Flood: Houston Speculators Make a Fast Buck From Storm’s Misery


Luring Fortune Seekers

Houston has always drawn fortune seekers looking to make a quick buck. The city was founded in 1836 by two brothers from New York, John and Augustus Allen, who had immigrated to what was then northeast Mexico only to side with the pro-slavery separatists who led the Texas Revolution. Within a few months of the war’s conclusion, they began to develop a patch of land on the Buffalo Bayou. They made a fortune in the murky trade of land certificates, promising would-be settlers that their mud-bogged, landlocked new city idyllically offered “the sea breeze in all its freshness.”

Houston rose to prominence as the Gulf Coast’s premier trading metropolis only after a hurricane laid waste to nearby Galveston, in 1900. But Houston, which is projected in about a decade to edge past Chicago as the third largest city in the United States, has endured its own share of weather misfortune. The reservoir in which Canyon Gate persists owes its existence to yet another calamity, the Great Houston Flood of 1935. Rains that year turned the streets of downtown Houston into choppy rivers, killing several people and shutting down the Port of Houston for eight months. The solution? Authorities built flood-control reservoirs in the 1940s, in effect creating new flood zones to protect the old ones.

Canyon Gate is designed to flood, but it is not part of the 100-year floodplain defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so it is not covered by FEMA rules that require mortgage seekers in flood zones to buy flood insurance. Some residents say little effort has been made to inform buyers of the risks they face.

Interactive Graphic

How One Houston Suburb Ended Up in a Reservoir

Most residents whose homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey had no clue that their gated community was built in an area prone to such damage in extreme storms.



OPEN Interactive Graphic


In the beginning, it seemed like there was no need. “Back in the 1940s, when the reservoirs were built, this place was way out of town, and they thought that the cows would just get out of the way if there was some overflow,” said Judge Robert E. Hebert, a top elected official in Fort Bend County, a once sparsely-populated expanse that now has more than 700,000 residents, including those in Canyon Gate.

But in the late 1990s, bolstered by Houston’s rapid expansion and the construction of new roads nearby, a residential development company called Land Tejas unveiled plans for Canyon Gate. County officials insisted that the developer warn prospective buyers that the homes lay in a flood reservoir, and Land Tejas agreed to do so, but only by way of an obscure filing. “This subdivision is adjacent to the Barker Reservoir and is subject to extended controlled inundation under the management of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” the developer stated in 1997 in the fine print of the plat, the county’s document approving the Canyon Gate subdivision.

“This is a man-made disaster we’re dealing with, make no mistake,” Judge Hebert said. “All these houses shouldn’t have been built in the first place, and now the speculators are moving in. The last thing I’d want to do is buy a house flooded in a reservoir.”

And yet the neighborhood is attractive in many ways. Canyon Gate, as its name suggests, offers a coveted sense of safety. It is also a remarkably cheap place to buy a home, and getting even cheaper. Spacious three-bedroom homes sold for about $230,000 before the storm, drawing some buyers from costlier real estate markets elsewhere in the United States. Now, homes in Canyon Gate go for about $130,000, and investors are scrambling to bet on Houston’s recovery.

Before the storm and after, Canyon Gate stood out for its capacity for welcoming people from around the world, its cul-de-sacs home to Nigerians, Indians, Venezuelans and Canadians, along with people from dozens of other countries. Fort Bend County ranks among the most ethnically diverse places in the world. Scholars at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research recently found that Fort Bend rivaled the diversity of New York and Los Angeles, with 35 percent of its population Anglo, 24 percent Latino, 21 percent African-American, and 19 percent Asian. Metropolitan Houston already has a population of 6.6 million and it is projected to reach 14.2 million by 2050, according to the Texas Demographic Center.

Video

How a Community Was Sacrificed to Save Houston

Cinco Ranch was designed to be flooded. So after Hurricane Harvey hit, the Texas suburb was sacrificed to save the city of Houston. We followed homeowners as they decided whether to cut their losses or rebuild, knowing it could happen again.


By LESLYE DAVIS, RAY WHITEHOUSE and ERIC MAIERSON on Publish Date March 19, 2018.


Photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

As Houston sprawls over the prairies, its residents are reckoning with the likelihood that the city will flood time and again in the decades ahead. And if Canyon Gate is a harbinger, that means homeowners will face dizzying choices with each big storm: rebuild on the same spot, pull up stakes and move on — or effectively trade on their neighbors’ misfortune.

The Disaster Economy

Mr. Pelletiere, for his part, sees nothing wrong with buying flooded homes. He said he did not expect everyone to approve of what he was doing, but said that investing in such real estate depended on acquiring local knowledge and accurately measuring the value of a property. Even now, he said he refrained from informing buyers of his damaged homes of the flood risks, explaining that the law did not require him to do so.

“Yeah, people call me a vulture when they learn what I do,” said Mr. Pelletiere, his sturdy frame clad in home-office attire of jeans, T-shirt and stocking feet on a typical work day in February. He was darting around his home, barking instructions to construction workers fixing the first floor.

“In reality I’m offering homeowners solutions,” Mr. Pelletiere said. “I was flooded, too, I get it, but this hurricane is a monstrous opportunity.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Mr. Pelletiere grew up washing dishes for $1 an hour in his father’s Italian restaurant. He dropped out of community college, he said, after realizing that higher education was not for him.

Seeking opportunity, he lit out west for Southern California, where he met his wife, who works in the aviation software industry. Undaunted by his lack of a college degree, Mr. Pelletiere worked in corporate sales jobs, founded his cadaver-transport venture, and dabbled in real estate in San Diego, embracing the chance to use those skills when his wife was transferred to Houston.

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