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The Orlando Sentinel


By Lance Oliver, Sentinel Correspondent

March 21, 1999

LOIZA, Puerto Rico - Six months ago today, Noemi Canales huddled in a neighbor's house as Hurricane Georges ripped the roof off her home.

Six months ago Monday, she surveyed the damage, and like many in Puerto Rico, was stunned by the devastation and wondered when things would ever be like they were before.

Homes were shattered all around this beach town, and the Luquillo Mountains to the south were a fuzzy gray-brown instead of the usual lush green, as Georges had even torn away the leaves on the trees, like stripping hope from the land.

In those early days, public sentiment on call-in radio shows was unanimous that Puerto Rico couldn't possibly recover from the Sept. 21 hurricane in time to hold a status vote Dec. 13, and some pessimists openly wondered whether Puerto Rico would ever be the same.

But the vote did go off without a hitch, and half a year after Georges, Puerto Rico in most ways is back to normal. Canales' home was one of 65,000 that were temporarily repaired with tons of bright-blue plastic sheeting flown in by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, and she said last week that a new concrete roof would replace the temporary fix ``when there's money.''

The island shows scars, such as Canales' roof, but it is also stronger in many places where people rebuilt with a new knowledge of what a truly powerful hurricane can do. The rebuilding was fueled by the largest infusion of aid ever to follow a hurricane in the United States.

Although other federal and Puerto Rico government agencies, the American Red Cross, local charities and businesses also pitched in, FEMA was the central engine of the recovery effort.

Hurricane Georges now ranks as the agency's second-largest disaster response, behind only the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California and well ahead of other hurricanes, including Andrew in 1992 in South Florida, FEMA spokeswoman Mildred Acevedo said.

The influx of money kept the economy from stalling. Losses outstripped aid, especially when hidden costs are included, such as lost production in factories that were without full electric power for weeks after the hurricane.

But aid from FEMA and the Puerto Rico government, plus private sources, has served as a big booster shot for Puerto Rico's economy.

Based on its survey, the weekly business journal Caribbean Business estimated that $3.6 billion has flowed into the island economy in the form of government grants and loans, insurance payments and charitable donations in the six months since the hurricane.

``Within two weeks, we became one of the biggest employers in Puerto Rico,'' said Russ Edmonston of the FEMA disaster field office. At its peak, FEMA had 4,800 employees working on the island's recovery effort, 2,800 of them local hires, mostly taking damage claims.

FEMA handed out nearly $1 billion to repair damaged homes and replace personal property, plus hundreds of millions more in grants to the local government and low-interest loans. That money kept the Puerto Rico economy going.

``Two-thirds of the money we put out in a disaster-recovery program is for minor repairs to make the houses livable. Almost all of that money goes to contractors and hardware stores,'' Edmonston said.

Hardware and construction-supply stores, as well as department stores such as Kmart, reported strong sales for months. One of the contractors who took on some of the FEMA-funded repair work was Roberto Castro, who lives in a neighborhood ravaged by Georges.

Alturas de Campo Rico in the north-coast town of Canovanas is a low- to middle-income neighborhood, but the views along the highest streets could grace the finest mansion. Castro and his crew were at work last week preparing to pour a concrete roof on a home damaged by Georges.

From the roof, they could see miles out into the Atlantic, and they also could see more than a dozen patches of blue on the hillside below, where other houses were still covered with the temporary FEMA tarps.

``Many of the ones repaired after [Hurricane] Hugo [in 1989] were damaged by Georges,'' Castro said. ``Now, nobody's putting up zinc roofs. You have to have good construction to live up here.''

The construction sector was roaring in Puerto Rico even before the hurricane. In fiscal year 1998, which ended before Georges, construction spending totaled a record $5.5 billion, according to Banco Popular, Puerto Rico's largest bank.

The Puerto Rico government itself had 55 projects under way ranging from new highways to a 55-mile water pipeline to a $1.5 billion-plus mass-transit system for San Juan. There are so many ongoing projects, contractors complain they have trouble finding enough workers.

The biggest repair job after Hurricane Georges was the islandwide power grid. At dawn on Sept. 22, as the hurricane finally moved off the island, the system was 100 percent down.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority's regular crews worked extra hours and were supplemented both by crews brought in from off the island as well as local contractors. Because of all the repairs, the system is stronger now than it was before Georges, said the authority's executive director, Miguel Cordero.

Six months later, some families are still living in what was supposed to be short-term housing. Many blue tarps remain, waiting to be replaced by permanent roofs. Aid doesn't solve everything. FEMA can help replace a roof but not the family photos.

Despite these scars, the hotels are full of tourists, and the trees are green again. The best proof of Puerto Rico's recovery is this: The people who could talk of nothing six months ago except the hurricane, now hardly mention the name Georges.

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