As thousands of residents filed for emergency aid under the Federal Emergency Management Administration(FEMA) after suffering heavy losses due to Hurricane Maria, many saw their hopes dashed when their pleas for aid were rejected. The federal agency deemed they had insufficient proof to indicate they had title to their property.
Although official numbers indicate around 80,000 cases have been rejected due to “ownership not verified”, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Access to Justice Fund, Adi Martínez, Esq., estimates higher numbers based on the information she receives from lawyers working on appeal cases. It is estimated that 250,000 homes were destroyed or suffered severe damages in Puerto Rico in what is considered one of the “costliest natural catastrophes ever recorded globally,” according to the “Hurricane Maria Event Recap Report” prepared by AON in March of 2018. María became the fourth costliest tropical cyclone on record after Katrina, Harvey, and Sandy. It is estimated that losses in Puerto Rico amount to $65 billion, according to AON.
As of late March of 2018, six months after the hurricane, FEMA had distributed $2.2 billion in federal aid to households and businesses in Puerto Rico while 1.1 million households and businesses had contacted FEMA for help and information, according to official FEMA information.
In view of the slow pace of aid and the apparent large number of rejections, Martínez turned to several foundations and organizations to obtain the funds needed to provide stipends for attorneys to work on appeals and help hurricane victims prove they had title to their property. One of the organizations she turned to was United for Puerto Rico.
In April the organization obtained funds to finance the work of five attorneys from the University of Puerto Rico Legal Trust Fund. These lawyers meet with people at FEMA centers throughout the island to help them in their appeals. In addition to the legal aid for appeals, United for Puerto Rico provided funds for later stage project in which lawyers for the Foundation to Access Justice Fund will do the legal work needed to formalize and register property titles of new homes build entirely or partially with United for Puerto Rico moneys.
“As it became evident that legal services were essential to obtain much needed aid, we approved a grant for the Foundation for Access to Justice Fund to provide legal services to hurricane victims,” said Mariely Rivera, Executive Director of United for Puerto Rico. “Legal assistance has a key role in recovery in Puerto Rico as in previous disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans,” explained Rivera, who added that United for Puerto Rico approved a grant of $465,000 for the Foundation for Access to Justice Fund.
Since April, Sergio González Solís, is one of the attorneys from the University of Puerto Rico Legal Trust Fund that has received funds from the Foundation for Access to Justice Fund who has been working in several FEMA centers. He has often worked at the center in Jayuya which also impacts Utuado survivors. Utuado is a central mountain town particularly hard hit by Hurricane María with landslides and large areas left isolated for weeks and later affected by months of no power. He visits one center for four hours and then moves to another center for the next four hours. Over the course of weeks, he has worked on over 500 cases.
“I was touched by a 95-year-old woman whose home was severely damaged by the Hurricane, yet she has been denied assistance to rebuild her home after living in it for ages because the documents presented are not sufficient for FEMA to recognize ownership,” explained the lawyer. Part of the reason why many rejections are taking place is because of the confusing history of the property registry in Puerto Rico, families who have inherited plots but have lacked the funds to clear who has succession to the title.
Martínez and González Solís explained that a large part of their work is based on searching for documents in the registry, for birth and death certificates to prove that the people who have denied funds due to lack of clarity in the registry are the rightful owners, or, they have a right to the aid because– under Puerto Rico and federal law –they comply with one of the requirements to receive aid. The lawyers, who are notary publics, must certify that the information is valid. Yet, part of the difficulty is to have FEMA understand the role of the notary public in Puerto Rico, which is much broader than in the U.S. In Puerto Rico, a notary public must be a lawyer and is required to take a separate exam to become a notary. They are the custodians of the public trust and cannot certify any illegality or they are subject to losing their license, explained Martínez. In the U.S. a notary public does not have that role, nor do they need to be attorneys at law.
Despite the difficulties inherent in explaining the many intricacies of Puerto Rico property law to FEMA officials, González Solís explained that in his experience FEMA employees at the centers are highly committed to helping the victims. Yet, because Puerto Rico’s legal realities are different from the U.S, it is sometimes an uphill effort to explain the details of Puerto Rican law and the property registry. “We win some and lose some,” said González Solís, who continues taking on a large load of appeals and is doing the hard work of finding documents to prove the cases.