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2 years later, U.S. island territories still hurting from Hurricanes Irma and Maria

Although 2020 is only days away, Americans in the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are still recovering from devastating storms that hit back in the fall of 2017. Hurricanes Maria and Irma flooded and leveled parts of the Caribbean islands, and residents say the FEMA response has been painfully slow and inadequate. Amna Nawaz talks to The New York Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're just days away from the start of a new year.

    And yet, in the U.S. territories of the Caribbean, American citizens say they are still dealing with a painfully slow response by FEMA when it comes to recovering from Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

    Those hurricanes, which flooded and leveled parts of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, hit more than two years ago, in September of 2017.

    Now, journalists from The New York Times have spent time on those islands in recent weeks, and found thousands of recovery projects have yet to get the full money from FEMA that they need, and many buildings are in disrepair since the hurricane or stalled from completion.

    Zolan Kanno-Youngs is homeland security correspondent for The New York Times. He's been covering this. And he joins me now from Boston.

    Zolan, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Your reporting was based on a number of documents you got as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. Tell me what those documents showed about the pace of recovery funds.

  • Zolan Kanno-Youngs:

    Right.

    So when my colleague Mark Walker and I were filing these public records requests, we really went in with this question. We know that the territories, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are still struggling since those two hurricanes devastated them, but is the recovery process actually slower for them, rather than states in the mainland of the country?

    We wanted to know that specifically when it came to federal funds, whether or not there was a system in place that made it harder for the territories to receive that money, so that they could expedite their repair and be resilient for the future.

    So we focused on critical infrastructure projects, schools and hospitals, roads, the things that you need, really, for your home.

    And what we found is that the system for those projects was cumbersome and often complex and often resulted in a debate between FEMA, as well as the local government, over how much FEMA would cover and how much the local government would cover.

    As — in regards to the exact — the exact results of our reporting, what we found was that, as you said, over — out of thousands of requests that these territories have made, just a fraction of them have actually been approved, meaning that just a small amount of the money actually allocated for the territories has made it down to people on the ground, which just isn't the case for other states that are prone to be hit by hurricanes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Help me understand. How big of a disparity are we talking about? You say the process is cumbersome when it comes to the U.S. territories, that there were thousands of requests. Only a few have been fully funded.

    Is it vastly different when you're talking about mainland U.S. states?

  • Zolan Kanno-Youngs:

    Well, yes.

    I mean, in Texas, there were more than 3,000 critical infrastructures approved thus far. In Puerto Rico, for example, there are about 190. So, right there, you can see the disparity.

    Now, what does that mean on the ground, right? What it means is that, in a place like Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where there regularly is only one hospital for people to go to, it means that there's still a hole in their roof. It means that an entire floor has been shutdown due to mold that is still spreading throughout the hospital, that nurses are still working in this area, and, as a result of working there, have rashes as well, and are fighting through that in order to provide care to the people on the island.

    At one point, they had no working operating rooms there due to the damage that still exists. This is this season. This is this fall. This is still the state of this place.

    And the way FEMA works, it's important to note, it is a reimbursement system. So, when you go and you talk to government officials about this, they might say, look, it is the — it is on the local government to front the money, and then we repay them for it.

    But when you talk to people in these communities, they say, well, look, we are already at a disadvantage. Financially, you don't receive some of the same grants for a hospital, the same Medicare — that its Medicare system is different. We're already at a disadvantage that way.

    But then you add on top of that the FEMA funding process for these territories also is different. Up until earlier this year, people on the territories basically needed to prove that a certain percentage of these critical infrastructures, that a percentage of the damage was caused by the hurricane, it wasn't pre-disaster damage.

    Congress acknowledged that that was leading to delays, and allowed FEMA to waive that requirement. But it still took months in order for them to come to an agreement with the local government and decide whether or not they would just partially repair or completely rebuild some of these facilities.

    That hospital that I was just referencing on the Virgin Islands, they haven't even moved into their temporary facility yet. That's scheduled for spring of 2020. Actually, I just heard recently that it might be summer 2020, which would mean that they would be in the thick of their third hurricane season without even moving into their temporary facility.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the immediate response to these disasters, there was a lot of conversation about the fact that there are a lot of logistical hurdles to surmount when you talk about getting aid to a place like Puerto Rico or to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

    It's a lot — easy to put a on a truck and get stuff down to Texas, for example, than it is to go to islands. Is any of that, the logistical hurdles, does any of that feed what you described as a more cumbersome process for residents there?

  • Zolan Kanno-Youngs:

    Oh, of course, of course, absolutely.

    I mean, just transportation, for one, as you acknowledged, I mean, that is a challenge to provide all the resources to these places that are not a part of the mainland. Another one is, we have to acknowledge the fact that these two hurricanes hitting back to back, just the damage was unprecedented. And it was.

    It also was at a time that FEMA was dealing with a lot of other natural disasters across the country, wildfires in California, flooding as well.

    So, absolutely. And when you talk to certain local officials in the territories, they would say, look, we didn't — there were some things we just didn't know. Also, we have to provide paperwork for this process, some of which got damaged. And some of our employees tasked with this were forced to flee as well as a result of the hurricane.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's an incredible piece of reporting. I encourage people to go to The New York Times to read in full.

    But, Zolan, while we have you, I want to ask you about another report you have out just today, this one focusing on President Trump's border wall.

    You actually traveled to the area, much of which is on private land, right, private landowners who control a lot of that land that the president, the government would need to claim via eminent domain in order to see through his border wall promise.

    What did those folks on the ground tell you?

  • Zolan Kanno-Youngs:

    So, you're right.

    In South Texas, most of that path for the border wall goes through private land. Thus far, the administration has built about 93 miles, most of it being on federal land. And they have only acquired about three of the 144 miles that is on private land.

    Those individuals face a choice. Will they voluntarily give up their land to the government for the exchange of a sum of money, or do they risk being taken to court, in which the government can assert eminent domain and probably get that land anyways?

    And those people, they have a range of views. I talked to landowners who vocally support President Trump and believe what he's saying in regards to border security. But they want to remind people, the border wall is not being built on the border. The border wall is being built — built about one mile within the United States, meaning that they would now lose easy access, as they describe it, to much of their land, for one individual, more than half of the farm — of the acres that he uses for farming.

    So that's kind of the real-world consequence for them. But they don't have many options when it comes to, like you said, the ability of the government to use eminent domain.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Zolan Kanno-Youngs, the homeland security correspondent for The New York Times.

    Thank you very much.

  • Zolan Kanno-Youngs:

    Oh, thank you for having me.

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