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Puerto Rico marks one year since Hurricane Maria with protests, frustration and song

Puerto Rico marks one year since Hurricane Maria with protests, frustration and song
A year after Hurricane Maria, many homes remain in ruins, including these along the beach of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The uplifting strains of one of Puerto Rico's most beloved songs filled the air at 6:15 a.m. on Thursday as a choir stood in the coastal town where Hurricane Maria made landfall at that moment exactly one year ago.

The serenade in Yabucoa, a fishing and farming town of 37,000 still struggling to recover from the Category 4 storm, was the first in a series of events to mark the anniversary of the devastating storm and remember the estimated 2,975 people who lost their lives in its aftermath. Protests were planned in San Juan and elsewhere, as well as a funeral procession. Tens of thousands remain without adequate shelter and reliable access to electrical power a year after the hurricane, which caused an estimated $100 billion in damage.

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Though the U.S. government has invested billions of dollars to help clean up and repair the island, much work remains. Major power outages are still being reported, tens of thousands of insurance claims are still pending, and nearly 60,000 homes still have temporary roofs unable to withstand a Category 1 hurricane.

"I think it's inexplicable," Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International's secretary general, told the Associated Press during a visit to Puerto Rico on Thursday. "There's no justifiable reason I can see for this gross level of negligence."

Government officials argue that many changes have been made to better prepare Puerto Rico for future storms, but they acknowledge that significant obstacles remain.

"We still have a lot to learn from the challenge of future catastrophic events," Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello said, noting that reconstruction continues across the U.S. territory.

Jose Ortiz, director of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority, told reporters that 20% of the repairs made to the power grid need to be redone. He said crews didn't have access to the best materials at the time or were forced to rely on temporary fixes, such as using trees as makeshift power polls after Maria destroyed up to 75% of the island’s transmission lines.

In addition, municipal officials have complained that reconstruction efforts are too slow. Ariel Soto, assistant to the mayor of the mountain town of Morovis, said that 220 families there remain without proper roofs.

"We're still waiting for help," he said. "This hit us hard."

In Yabucoa, tarps still covered many homes that have yet to be rebuilt, as the hopeful strains of "Amanecer Borincano" — "Puerto Rican Dawn" — resonated at the spot where Maria first unleashed its fury. "I am the light of the morning that illuminates new paths," the choir sang to the dozens of local officials and residents gathered there. "I am the son of palm trees, of fields and rivers."

In the capital, San Juan, among those still living under a blue tarp during the peak of hurricane season was Sixta Gladys Pena, a 72-year-old community leader.

"You worry, because you think it's going to fly off like it did before," she said. "We've lost an entire year and nothing has been resolved. You feel powerless."

On Thursday, Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced in San Juan that $1.5 billion was being released to Puerto Rico as part of the overall $20 billion pledged for rebuilding, the largest in the agency's history.

Officials said the priority is to help people still living under tarps, as well as those in low- and middle-income housing. The money will be used to repair and rebuild homes, relocate people and help them obtain property titles if needed.

"The path forward is challenging and will be measured not in months, but really in years," Carson said.

In recent weeks, Puerto Ricans have become increasingly angry and frustrated as President Trump recently touted what he said was a "fantastic" response to Hurricane Maria, calling it an "unsung success" as he denied the official death toll without presenting any evidence.

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On Thursday, Trump issued a one-sentence statement on the anniversary of Maria. "We stand with Puerto Rico, and we are helping them to rebuild stronger and better than ever before," it said.

Nivia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old retiree whose uncle died a week after Maria, is among those disgruntled by Trump's comments, as well as by videos of rescue crews responding to Hurricane Florence on the U.S. mainland.

"They saved five dogs that were drowning," she said of the ongoing effort in North Carolina. She thinks Puerto Rico didn't get the same treatment. "That hits you."

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