Mon | Aug 20, 2018

UN steps in to assess help for American territory

Published:Wednesday | December 13, 2017 | 12:00 AM
This October 5, 2017 file photo shows Roberto Figueroa Caballero sitting on a small table in his home that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in La Perla neighborhood on the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Figueroa put his salvageable items back where they originally were, as if his home still had walls, saying that it frees his mind. A UN expert on extreme poverty and human rights visited Puerto Rico, Monday, December 11, to meet with hurricane victims.

A United Nations expert on extreme poverty and human rights met Monday with hurricane victims in Puerto Rico as complaints grow about the United States government's response to a Category 4 storm.

UN envoy Philip Alston toured one of the hardest hit areas in the capital of San Juan, marking the first time such an envoy has visited the US territory in recent history.

Alston told The Associated Press that there is a disproportionate number of Puerto Ricans living in poverty and that he's trying to assess, among other things, the effectiveness of measures taken by the federal government after the storm hit on September 20, killing dozens of people and destroying tens of thousands of homes. Ten of the island's 78 municipalities are still without power, and thousands of businesses remain closed.

"I've visited areas that are still completely without power. I've seen areas that have lots of damage that hasn't been removed, and that must be very distressing after three months," he said.

He walked past homes with no roofs and a woman still washing sheets by hand three months after Hurricane Maria hit, raising hopes that his visit could help speed up the long recovery process.

Roughly 45 per cent of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million people were already living below the poverty line before the hurricane hit.

Alston said he was impressed how local non-profit organisations have helped Puerto Ricans recover from the storm, adding that one of the challenges is how the government can harness their power.

"There is more resiliency and potential self-sufficiency here than has been acknowledged," he said.

Alston declined further comment, noting that he will present a full report of his observations and a list of priorities on Friday following a two-week trip that also included visits to several US states.

"There are a number of issues I want to take up," he said.

His visit comes more than a month after a group of UN experts criticised the US government for what they said was a lack of urgency and priority in helping Puerto Rico, compared with US states affected by hurricanes.

The US approved nearly US$5 billion in aid for Puerto Rico in late October, but local officials say they have not yet received any of those funds. Meanwhile, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced on Monday that it has collected one million cubic yards of debris in Puerto Rico, and FEMA said it has separately approved more than US$1 billion in assistance for people on the island.

However, Puerto Rico community leaders said that people living around the contaminated Martin Pena Channel, which was visited by Alston, did not receive any help from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency until a month after the hurricane hit.

"We're not living. We're surviving on what little aid we receive," said community leader and resident Mario Nunez. "We have human rights."

By the time FEMA crews reached the house of one of his neighbours, 59-year-old Margarita Carino, she had already gone to the dollar store to buy a tarp and scavenged a nearby contaminated waterway for pieces of zinc and wood that neighbours used to help rebuild her roof. Carino then used tar and paper towels to patch holes in some areas.

"This has been a disaster ... I've fallen into a depression," she said as she used both hands to wipe away tears.