SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — A scene of blue tarps and buzzing mosquitos greet anyone peering over the overpass of the Martín Peña Bridge in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s largest and most populated city. Bobbing in the water below are a number of plastic bottles, visible even from the highway. Between them, an alligator-like creature known as a caiman peaks its head out into the blazing May sun, before ducking back under, seemingly bored.
Below the bridge runs the Caño Martín Peña, a channel stretching from San Juan Bay to where Laguna San José meets Laguna Los Corozos. Off to the side are houses, many lacking roofs, instead featuring the tell-tale blue replacements that dot much of Puerto Rico at the moment. Handed out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the tarps are all that stand between many residents and the elements.
For the eight communities living alongside the Caño Martín Peña, the current situation is not far from their former reality: home to piles upon piles of rotting garbage, the Caño Martín Peña is a far cry from the sparkling blue sea that surrounds Puerto Rico. Historically the site of pollution and neglect, the channel has long posed a health hazard to nearby residents, many of whom live in poverty and whose lives have become even more untenable in the eight months since Hurricane Maria made landfall last September.
“Low income communities are the ones that are more challenged after a hurricane like Maria,” Lyvia Rodríguez Del Valle explained on a warm Monday afternoon.
Rodríguez Del Valle has served as the executive director for ENLACE, a public-private partnership maintained by community organizers and leaders, for 12 years. ENLACE, or the Corporación ENLACE del Caño Martin Peña, works exclusively to aid the communities bordering the channel. Following Maria, the group’s work became even more critical.
“The process of rebuilding and repairing after a storm is very slow,” Rodríguez Del Valle said. “There have to be other intermediate measures that can be put in place.”
Home to some 26,000 people, the Caño Martín Peña communities are among the poorest in Puerto Rico. The eight barrios, referred to as the “G8,” live in a continued state of ongoing emergency.
In the 1930s, a large migration from rural Puerto Rico to the island’s urban hubs brought hoards of new residents, many of whom built their homes alongside the channel. For years, pollution from the canal has brought sewage and disease into those homes, all of which lack a proper sewage system. Development has haunted the vulnerable area, contributing more waste and giving both businesses and lawmakers few incentives to protect the inhabitants, who are often treated as a nuisance.
Black water and sewage pouring into homes may not be completely out of the ordinary for G8 residents, but Maria offered an unprecedented situation. Many community members awoke in September to flooded toilets immersing their homes in raw sewage, with murky water rapidly rising. Forced to grab children and elderly family members before running outside, a number of residents said they had no time to gather their valuables or stop to retrieve any basic necessities.
Skin rashes, asthma, dengue fever, Zika, and other ailments quickly followed. Halting assistance from FEMA and other officials did little to mitigate the damage done to the G8. Still, as the situation went from bad to worse, community leaders stepped in, tending to their own in any way they could.
Clearing away debris, checking in on neighbors, and forming a united front, the barrios’ thousands of residents worked to restore order in a time of crisis.
“The communities of Martín Peña are highly organized,” said Rodríguez Del Valle. “[They have] a history of 16 years of well-thought community planning and organizing.”
It is thanks to those communities that ENLACE exists. The organization is the product of three separate groups working together: the broader Caño Martín Peña ENLACE Corporation, as well as G-8 Inc. and the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust. While the united effort works to protect the interests of the G8 more broadly, current endeavors largely center on shifting residents from the blue tarps now protecting them from wind and rain to actual roofs.
“We believe in the right to a house,” said Estrella Santiago Perez, an environmental manager with ENLACE. While the “whole island is fighting economic hardship,” she said, those without the resources to move and rebuild have been largely left behind.
Efforts like the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust have historically helped G8 residents to evade eviction and displacement. Through the land trust, families co-own land in order to avoid gentrification. And despite back and forth disagreements over the trust’s right to exist — including a government effort to disband it — the group ultimately won a 2015 U.N. Habitat Award for its innovation and success in helping the G8 mobilize and work towards a sustainable future.
Post-Maria, the land trust is being put to the test. Many residents lack the land titles required by FEMA to place claims, something ENLACE is working to address. Federal aid following Maria, Santiago Perez said, has proven to be full of problems. FEMA’s application process is difficult for G8 residents to understand, with translation issues and a lack of clear criteria.
“In Puerto Rico, we have one house with, say, four families, all living in different parts,” Santiago Perez said, explaining that such a concept has been challenging for FEMA officials who want to know why multiple families might submit applications for one home. Worse yet, she said, “we have heard of inspectors [who come to homes] who speak only English.”
Despite such hurdles, residents have fought to stay in Martín Peña.
“There’s a sense of family, we’re family here, and people don’t want to lose that,” said Santiago Perez. While officials often argue that community members would be better off elsewhere, she explained, that’s a tough sell to people who have lived in the area for generations.
“Even if you’re moving to a ‘better’ place, a ‘better’ area, you’re still going to miss that. It’s not that it’s better, it’s that it’s different, and that’s what people don’t understand,” she said. “There’s a lot going on in these communities, a lot of activities. There’s also people that can’t just move because they don’t have the ability to do so.”
As they come together to address the problems posed by Maria, G8 residents and their allies also harbor few illusions about the future.
“Sea level rise is going to happen, climate change is real,” said Santiago Perez emphatically. Rodríguez Del Valle noted that she believes the findings of the “scientific community” and that she worries storms like Maria will become more frequent.
“More severe storms, due to climate change,” she said. “Moving forward, we need to be able to find coping and adaptation mechanisms to climate change that not only [look at] vulnerability in a 360 degree way [but] that also respect cultural aspects and the history of the communities.”
Those kinds of thoughts have crossed Rodríguez Del Valle’s mind more and more as the next hurricane season approaches.
“It’s going to be very challenging in terms of the collective anxiety that’s going on,” she said. “As we know, the homes of so many people will not be able to support the winds of a tropical storm. Being able to at least provide the [basic tools] so that the families can be safe…is a priority.”
In addition to shifting residents from tarps to homes with roofs, ENLACE has equipped residents who have opted to repair their own roofs with the tools they need. Rodríguez Del Valle said that it’s important those who undertake such efforts do so safely and with the proper mechanisms, something ENLACE is working to accommodate.
There isn’t much residents can do to stop the hurricanes when they do arrive, of course. But with actual roofs in place, they’ll at least have some protection.
Above all, Rodríguez Del Valle said, ENLACE is prepared to elevate the needs of Caño Martín Peña’s residents, whatever comes. “For us, it’s critical to be able to include the community in the decision-making process,” she said.
“People are smart,” she added. “It’s a matter of stimulating those conversations and having them be part of the solution rather than directing a solution from a desk somewhere else that might actually lead to unjust ways of dealing with the situation.”