Puerto Rico: Stories of Despair but also Hope

February 14, 2018
Bob Annibale, Citi Pride Affinity Co-lead
Guillermo Gomez, Chief Country Officer, Puerto Rico

On Wednesday September 20, 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by a Category 4 hurricane – the island's worst natural disaster in nearly a century. Hurricane Maria made landfall with 155 mile-an-hour winds that caused an estimated $85 billion in insured losses.

Puerto Rico's Housing Secretary, Fernando Gil, says the Commonwealth is in the midst of a "housing crisis" in the aftermath of the storm. The government estimates that more than a third of the 1.2 million occupied homes on the island were either damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Maria. To help provide vital support and assist with recovery efforts during this time, we recently announced in San Juan, PR, a new initiative that will deliver urgently-needed housing assistance in local communities.

Puerto Rico 1Before the hurricane, many of Puerto Rico's households were already economically challenged. Five months after the hurricane, 30% of Puerto Rico's utility customers (representing 40% of the commonwealth's population, mostly in rural areas) still lack access to electricity. As estimated by the US Census, median household income on the island is less than half the national average of $59,000, the poverty rate is approximately 45% and the unemployment rate is over 10%. Support to assist families with rebuilding their homes and small businesses is crucial.

Supported by $500,000 in funding from Citi Community Development (CCD), four of Puerto Rico's leading housing organizations will help thousands of families across the Commonwealth recover by providing free essential housing services, including such as support for home repairs, free housing counseling, and other vital recovery resources, to renters and homeowners alike. This new funding is in addition to $250,000 of support CCD provided in late 2016.

"I'd like to thank Citi for teaming with four outstanding Puerto Rican organizations to help in this ongoing time of crisis. Housing is one of the most fundamental and pressing needs and this support will help many families receive the assistance and funding required to rebuild and get back on their feet," said Ricardo Rosselló, Governor of Puerto Rico.

Before the press announcement, our four community partners, Puerto Rico NHS, Ponce Neighborhood Housing Services, Pathstone and One Stop Career Center of Puerto Rico, arranged two days of visits to see firsthand the aftermath of Maria. As we left San Juan and traveled to the southern and western regions of the island, it was hard to imagine how different the conditions must have been as the storm hit. But the countless fallen trees, scattered debris and a patchwork of blue tarps covering homes were constant reminders that for many hours, Puerto Rico was a scene of utter devastation.

Puerto Rico 2With Lily Lopez, who leads Citi Community Development's programs in Puerto Rico, we made stops in five cities - from San Juan in the north, to Hormigueros in the west and Ponce on the southern coast - visiting residents affected by Maria. As we spoke to families about their experiences, the blue sky was often be visible through giant holes where roof tops once offered shelter. Doors had been blown off, appliances destroyed and personal possessions lost forever. All of the houses we saw had no power.

Puerto Rico 3Yet despite the overwhelming challenges, we heard stories of hope and saw the impact our community partners were having through earlier funding.

We met with two small business owners and visited one of their businesses, a restaurant. After months of relying on a generator, the restaurant's power had recently been restored and with the assistance of one of our nonprofit partners, their small business loans received a five-month forbearance enabling them to focus on recovery and rebuilding their business.

In 2018, Citi will celebrate 100 years of operations in Puerto Rico. Like the residents, homeowners and small business owners we met, as a bank we are committed to playing our role in Puerto Rico's recovery and renewal over the next one hundred years. That work begins now.

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