Remnants of Irma and Maria: Two Years Later, Blue Roofs Still Abound

 

George Hendricks stands outside his Whim home. Two years after Hurricane Maria took off his roof, blue tarp still covers the house. (Source photo by Wyndi Ambrose)
George Hendricks stands outside his Whim home. Two years after Hurricane Maria took off his roof, blue tarp still covers the house. (Source photo by Wyndi Ambrose)

Blue tarps are meant to last anywhere between 30 days and six months and yet, two years after Hurricane Maria, they still cover the homes of many of the territory’s residents in dire need of permanent roof repairs.

Aerial images of parts of St. Croix reveal scores of blue roofs in 2019, giving a glimpse into an issue that persists throughout the entire territory. But a figure on just how many homes still have blue tarps today appears to be unknown.

In recent interviews, representatives from four different government agencies and one nonprofit disaster relief organization were unable to give an exact number of how many blue roofs are left. These entities included the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, St. Croix Long Term Recovery Group, Government House, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency.

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Tracking down that figure doesn’t seem to fall under the jurisdiction of any government agency. Government House Spokesman Richard Motta, VITEMA Public Information Officer Garry Green, and FEMA’s federal coordinating officer for this region, Christopher Hartnett, initially deferred to VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith on the matter. But Griffith said his agency’s primary responsibility was to service those who applied for help via the repair programs managed by the authority.

Aerial photo by Daryl Wade shows a sprinkling of fading tarp roofs in Estate Whim two years after the passage of Hurricane Maria. (Daryl Wade photo)
Aerial photo by Daryl Wade shows a sprinkling of fading tarp roofs in Estate Whim two years after the passage of Hurricane Maria. (Daryl Wade photo)

According to VIHFA Public Relations Representative Lisa Posey, one of the reasons the blue tarps are hard to track is because there were various groups involved in the installations that followed Maria in 2017. The two main groups were FEMA and the United States Army Corps of Engineers, but FEMA didn’t track the number of tarps installed, Posey said during a phone interview on Sept. 4.

Griffith, who was also on the phone line, said that the Army Corps of Engineers initially installed 3,663 blue tarps. However, thousands more would have been installed with FEMA funding through contractors and by organizations and individuals who did personal installations, Posey said.

FEMA officials have said FEMA did not directly perform home repairs but rather funded it.

But the question remains: Of all those initially installed, how many are left?

Jay Rollins, St. Croix Long Term Recovery Group’s executive director for regional and national relationships, said the nonprofit organization has reached out to different government agencies for an answer but hasn’t been able to get one either.

“I don’t think anyone in the territory knows how many of our residents are still under blue tarps,” he said.

Rollins said his best estimate would be 10 percent of residents, based on the number of clients applying for help from his team.

“But I have a feeling the number’s actually a lot higher,” he said.

Many homes in Estate Stoney Ground on St. Croix still have blue roofs. (Daryl Wade photo)

According to Rollins, LTRG leaders from all three islands are partnering with the Unites States Army Reserve to identify blue roofs throughout the territory. He said they’ve had discussions about the Army Reserve using military funding and resources to do this assessment as part of larger recovery projects.

But it may take between six and seven weeks before there’s an accurate figure on the blue roofs, Rollins said.

Although there is no exact figure, a quick scan of areas such as Grove Place, Campo Rico, Whim, and the Walter I.M. Hodge Pavilion draws attention to a plethora of blue roofs. And the people who’ve lived under them have stories to tell.

Challenge 1: So, So Many Inspections

The home of Austen Bowen still without a roof. (Source photo by Wyndi Ambrose)
This home is just one example of the many homes in Estate Whim that still have no roof. (Source photo by Linda Morland)

When Lawrence Harley’s mother died, about eight years before Hurricane Maria, she didn’t leave a will. So he and his sister, Tina Harley, decided together how to split up the assets their mother had left behind.

He got her house in Whim. Then Maria came and took off the roof.

When he spoke to the Source on Aug. 7, his roof was covered with blue tarp, which he said didn’t stop rain from leaking onto all his belongings. He’d found shelter at another family house that his mother had previously owned.

Sometimes Harley goes back to spend time with his sister, who lives next door in a home that fared better than his did during the hurricane. He sat with her, surrounded by his nieces and their children on her front porch, as he recounted his attempts to get government assistance in fixing his roof.

According to Harley, the first stages of requesting government help included numerous inspections.

“From stage one, they send me ‘bout fifteen inspectors. ‘Ain get done,” he said. “Stage two – the same thing.”

Tina Harley said that, at one point, workers came to repair the roof, but a supervisor stopped them. She said she thought it was because there weren’t any funds to pay them, but her brother said it seemed like they were workers who came directly from Puerto Rico and were unaware of which houses were officially scheduled for repair.

Tina Harley expressed her frustration at the lack of coordination.

“I thought they were sent here to help us, and you send people to start a roof and then you come back and tell them come back off the roof? What kind of thing is that?” she said.

Challenge 2: Paperwork, Paperwork, and More Paperwork
Another challenge for residents awaiting roof repair is the amount of paperwork they must fill out and documents they must present in order to receive help on the federal government’s dime.

Lawrence Harley said he was required to fill out lots of paperwork proving ownership in the first two phases of the government’s recovery program. He said he was asked for his mother’s death certificate since everything was in her name. Other requirements included land tax documents, the deed, and his ID.

Lawrence Harley's home still lacks a roof despite the mountain of paperwork he's delivered to various agencies. (Source photo by Wyndi Ambrose)
Lawrence Harley’s home still lacks a roof despite the mountain of paperwork he’s delivered to various agencies. (Source photo by Wyndi Ambrose)

“I carry in all of that to them. All the documents they ask me for – every single thing,” he said. “It’s proof. Everything is there. ‘Ain got nothing to hide.”

And yet, he still has more paperwork to turn in, Harley said.

“They told me they were coming, and they never showed up,” George Hendricks said of contractors after he’d finished cutting the grass on his Whim property.

In the middle of his plot is the small house that the 52-year-old grew up in. When Hendricks spoke to the Source on Aug. 7, the house was covered with blue tarp over the fragments of roof Maria left behind. He said he sleeps there “now and then,” but it leaks when it rains. Asked what he’d do if another hurricane were to come, Hendricks shrugged.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he said. “I have to move again.”

Hendricks said his sister, the official owner of the house, filled out all the necessary paperwork to receive government assistance, but no one has come to repair the roof on his home.

Challenge 3: Living in a Rented Home without a Roof
For some, getting assistance with a blown-off roof was complicated because the roof wasn’t theirs to begin with; it belonged to their landlords.

Sylvester Samuel and his wife found shelter in another house through Maria’s harsh winds and torrential rains. But when they returned to the house that they’d called home for four years in Grove Place, they discovered that the roof was no more.

Blue tarp covered this home too. Samuel said that he and his wife stayed there up to a year after the hurricane.

“But it was not convenient to live in at the time. There was lots of water and there was lots of damage,” Samuel said. “The fridge – it got spoil. I had my wash machine; it got spoil. I had a computer; it got spoil.”

Clothes, furniture, and other house wares were damaged. Replacing what was lost has cost him between $3,000 and $4,000 so far, he said.

According to Samuel, their landlord informed them that she would not be repairing the roof, so he and his wife had to find a home elsewhere. They found one that cost them a little more per month right up the street.

But Samuel isn’t complaining. The 62-year-old said his faith in God gives him the ability to be content no matter what the circumstances are.

“In life, it’s a battle you fighting, and whenever the battle is rough, you fight it with the hope that God already won the victory, and you can’t be on the losing side because God is not a loser.”

Challenge 4: Too Much Damage for Permanent Roof Repair

Austin Bowen, owner of a house in Whim, said the money he received through the Federal Emergency Management Agency will only cover the costs of materials for a permanent roof repair. His teacher’s salary won’t be enough to cover the cost of installing the roof, he said. (Source photo by Wyndi Ambrose)
Austin Bowen, owner of a house in Whim, said the money he received through the Federal Emergency Management Agency will only cover the costs of materials for a permanent roof repair. His teacher’s salary won’t be enough to cover the cost of installing the roof, he said. (Source photo by Wyndi Ambrose)

Along with the the Harley home are more blue tops scattered all over Whim. One of them belongs to Austin Bowen, a schoolteacher at Reading Rainbow.

Bowen described his Maria experience as “surreal.”

“The sound just got louder, and then all of a sudden – Whfff! – It was gone,” he said. “Nothing fell into the house. Everything just got lifted up.”

Part of the roof was blown off.

Bowen said he subsequently went through the process of applying with FEMA. He said FEMA representatives came to verify that he’d been there during the hurricane and to assess the damage to his home. The Army Corps of Engineers, in partnership with FEMA, replaced missing rafters and put on blue tarp for a temporary fix. But according to Bowen, even this temporary fix couldn’t happen until a month after Maria, because every time inspectors came before that, they’d said it was more damage than they had anticipated.

The tarp that the Corp of Engineers installed held up initially, but it eventually began to dry-rot after almost two years of weathering sun, rain, and wind, according to Bowen. He said he had to put on a second covering of tarp himself in March to avoid leaks.

Challenge 5: When Federal Funding Isn’t Enough

Bowen has received some money for a permanent repair but said it won’t be enough.

“They did an assessment and they gave an award, but the money that they gave, if anything, was just enough to cover the materials,” he said. “It doesn’t cover the cost of installing the stuff.”

Bowen said his teacher’s salary isn’t enough to supplement what he’s already gotten in federal funding. He said he recently applied for help through the government’s latest recovery program – EnVIsion Tomorrow – but like Harley, he expressed frustration in having to produce more paperwork after going through the same process in previous programs.

The Government’s Response
In an Aug. 22 phone interview, Griffith responded to concerns about numerous inspections with seemingly no results, issues proving heirship, issues with rental units and other challenges with roof repairs.

He said that the first set of emergency roof replacements that the territory saw after the hurricane was under the FEMA-funded Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power program. But it was “the first time in FEMA’s history” that they’d done a roofing program like the one administered in the Virgin Islands, according to Griffith.

Temporary roof and blue tarps were strewn around at an apartment complex on St. Thomas after Dorian. (Photo by Rodwell Arthur)

Posey, who was also on the phone, said that although the pilot program had many “hiccups,” there were more than 1,600 people who received roofs through the program. About 1,141 of those people were St. Croix residents. These residents would have had to wait much longer had it not been for the FEMA-funded roof replacement program, according to Posey.

For those who went through the application process and inspections but still didn’t get roofs, Griffith said he felt their pain. The intent was to help, he said, but inspections revealed that some homes had too much structural damage to simply put roofs over them.

“They did get a lot of eyes and a lot of people walking through there to see how they could be assisted,” he said. “But now you’ve had four different groups of individuals up and down your house, muddying your carpet, and still haven’t received the assistance, so it can be frustrating. So, I understand the pain from the public.”

According to the VIHFA executive director, residents could have seen multiple groups go through their homes, including representatives of FEMA or the contractor hired to manage disaster recover in the territory, Witt O’Brien’s. Residents could have also seen inspections from lots of other subcontractors.

This was another source of confusion for many who went through STEP – the number of subcontractors they had to deal with. The two main firms contracted to handle repairs, AECOM and APTIM, had more than 100 subcontractors underneath them, according to Griffith.

Sen. Marvin Blyden, chair of the Senate’s Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications Committee, said some contractors stopped working because they were so far down the chain that they weren’t being paid.

“Some of those contractors are two, three, four, five tiers down,” Blyden said. “In some cases, the main contractor already got paid, but they have not paid the subcontractor to the subcontractor to the subcontractor… and they can’t work because they’re not gonna work without being paid.”

A lot of homeowners were “stuck in the middle holding a bag,” according to Blyden.

But both the senator and Griffith said VIHFA is now hoping to offer solutions for some of the people still awaiting permanent repairs.

Help through EnVIsion Tomorrow
VIHFA’s latest home repair program, EnVIsion Tomorrow is designed to help the people whose homes were too damaged to be fixed through previous emergency repair programs, Griffith said.

“So the more damaged your home is the higher you are in the priority list,” he said.

In comparison to the STEP program, EnVIsion Tomorrow’s repair program is supposed to be a more streamlined process. One of the reasons is because this program is funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and managed by VIHFA. According to Griffith and Posey, this funding source allows for a structure that will cut out the numerous subcontractors.

“There’ll be a one-to-one relationship with the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, the contractor, and the homeowner,” Griffith said, “so the homeowner will know who the local contractor is fixing their home, the contractor will know who their funding source is because it’s the Housing Finance Authority, and we’ll be closely monitoring the construction.”

Griffith said the authority will also partner with the Legal Services of the Virgin Islands to help the people who’ve lived in the homes of deceased family members prove heirship.

“But that takes time though, unfortunately,” he said. “They’re gonna have to go through legal services, and that’s gonna help them get their deeds done correctly, gonna get their inheritance done correctly so that they can have the house in their name to prove ownership. But that does take time.”

Who will qualify for EnVIsion Tomorrow?
EnVIsion Tomorrow’s Housing Recovery Program focuses on homeowners. And while the intent behind the program is to assist those who fell through the cracks of previous programs, there are rules on how the federal funds are used.

HUD requires VIHFA to use 70 percent of the awarded funds to benefit people with low to moderate income, according to Griffith.

The calculations are based on the median family income in each area. Based on HUD’s income limits summary for the 2019 fiscal year, St. Croix’s median family income is about $51,900. St. Thomas’s MFI is $58,300, and St. John’s is $62,600.

Using St. Croix’s MFI, a family of four would be considered low income if they earned $45,200 or less a year. The same family would be considered very-low income if their earnings were $28,250 or less per year, and if they earned $16,950 or less annually, it’d make them extremely-low income.

These are the people who will get priority through EnVIsion Tomorrow.

But there might be even more paperwork for the people who’ve already applied for help through previous programs. Because the FEMA-funded STEP program was an emergency program, there were some documents that weren’t required, according to Griffith.

Another home in St. Croix’s Estate Whim is covered with a blue tarp. (Source Photos by Linda Morland)

For example, FEMA didn’t ask for anything related to income, insurance, or finances, Griffith said. Under the HUD-funded EnVIsion Tomorrow program, there are “duplication of benefits” guidelines. This means that if applicants have access to insurance monies or other resources, they can only use the federal funds to supplement what they have already, according to Griffith.

“If your house costs $200,000 to repair and you received $100,000 in insurance proceeds, the maximum you can get from the program is $100,000 to supplement what you need,” he said. “So, we ask the public for their patience, but HUD has very strict ‘duplication of benefits’ rules to make sure that as many people can get served as possible.”

A Finite Amount of Money
But there is only so much money to go around, and according to Griffith, the 1,250 people who’ve already applied for repairs through EnVIsion Tomorrow have the potential to use up a large portion of the available funds.

“One of the things we have to make public as well is – it’s really heartbreaking to say – it’s that this is a finite amount of money. Even though we say we wanna use $200 million, that’s still not gonna repair every single roof in the territory,” Griffith said.

HUD awarded $1.8 billion in disaster funds to the Virgin Islands via the Community Development Block Grant in 2018. The funds have been broken up into four tranches to be released in stages. But for the territory to receive the money at each stage, officials must develop an action plan that HUD approves.

So far, HUD approved the action plan developed during former Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s administration and released the first tranche of $242 million. Griffith said that a second action plan for the second tranche of $779 million has also been approved, and now HUD is in the process of creating a grant agreement to be signed by Gov. Albert Bryan. To receive the third tranche of funds, V.I. officials will have to submit a third action plan in the future.

As VIHFA manages the available funds, they’re dividing EnVIsion Tomorrow clients into two groups – those who need simple repairs and those who need reconstruction.

By October, VIHFA has plans to send contract managers to applicants’ homes to assess damage and determine the cost of repairs, Griffith said. If contract managers report that a home has less than $50,000 worth of damages, the client will go into the repair group. But if it’s determined that a home will need more than $50,000 in repairs, the client will go into the reconstruction group.

Clients in the repair group will be capped at $50,000, and the highest that a client in the reconstruction group can get in repairs will be $250,000, according to Griffith.

When will EnVIsion Tomorrow repairs start?
EnVIsion Tomorrow repairs will likely start after contract managers make their assessments in October, but Griffith couldn’t give an exact date in his Aug. 22 interview with the Source.

He said VIHFA had already sent out requests for qualifications for contractors who can work on the damaged homes. The RFQs reeled in 29 local contractors who are licensed to do the repairs, but the goal is to ultimately reel a pool of 100 contractors, according to Griffith.

Help for Landlords
While EnVision Tomorrow’s Housing Recovery Program is targeting homeowners, what happens to the tenants like Samuel, who either had to live or are currently living under blue roofs?

“Even if we fixed every single homeowner’s home in the territory, we’re still gonna have half of the blue roofs out there because they belong to landlords,” Griffith said.

Landlords, not the tenants, would be responsible for finding the resources needed to repair their roofs and other damages.

VIHFA is offering a Rental Recovery Program, where landlords can receive a grant of up to $50,000 to repair their units. According to Griffith, about 70 landlords have already signed up.

But priority will be given to landlords who will accept housing choice voucher holders as tenants.

The housing choice voucher program is a federal program meant to help low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled afford decent housing in the private market. Landlords who participate in the program must meet certain health and safety standards indicated by the housing authority in their area. In return, the authority will pay the landlord directly for a portion of the voucher holder’s rent.

Individual and Community Responsibility for Blue Roofs
While there are government programs for housing and rental recovery, is it solely the government’s responsibility to handle all of the territory’s blue roofs?

After waiting two years for government assistance with a roof repair, Lawrence Harley said he thought it was time to take matters into his own hands.

“I gettin’ ready to just do it on my own now,” he said.

But there’s no homeowner’s insurance on the house. So, if he’s unable to receive government assistance, his plan B will require out-of-pocket funds – funds that he said he doesn’t have right now.

“Piece by piece, I will do it,” he said. “It will get done. One-one full basket, so I goin’ full my basket.”

For those who are having a hard time getting government assistance, Rollins said there are long-term recovery groups with disaster case managers who are willing to help on all three islands.

According to Rollins, their disaster case managers will work with clients to help them identify which federal programs they qualify for and to help them get through the necessary paperwork. Leaders are working on getting more legal counsel from off island to help clients prove heirship as well, Rollin said.

If clients don’t qualify for federal funds, the LTRG staff will try to find additional resources to help them through local or international sponsors.

Rollins said the goal is to raise a pot of $15 million to supplement the federal funds coming into the territory for disaster recovery. So far, the nonprofit organization has raised about $600,000, he said.

One of their biggest donors is GlobalGiving, an organization that has very little stipulations on how the funds are disbursed. This gives LTRG flexibility, allowing them to focus on meeting the needs of the community, Rollins said.

More than 70 clients have already sought help with LTRG, but the group expects to see between 3,500 and 5,000 cases in the long run. It’s an estimate based on 10 percent of FEMA registrations for recovery aid, according to Rollins.

“I call us the safety nets of the safety nets,” the St. Croix LTRG executive said. “Our goal is to make sure we’re catching the folks falling through the cracks to get them back to where they need to be…. We will keep going until everyone’s back to where they were before 2017.”

But according to Rollins, the changes won’t happen overnight. He recalled working for a decade with a disaster response organization in New York before moving to St. Croix four years ago.

“Disaster recovery is slow,” he said. “My organization closed our last case for Katrina 10 years after Katrina happened.”

Creating resilient communities after a huge disaster like Maria will take more than dependence on the government, Rollins said. He proposed that it will take the initiative of other community leaders.

“Part of it is: we can’t rely on the government. We have to be community-focused and community-driven. The government can only do so much,” he said.

There is also individual responsibility, Sen. Blyden said. One of those responsibilities, according to the senator, is homeowners’ insurance.

“The government is here to protect and look out for the people, but at the same time, the people have a responsibility,” Blyden said. “Perfect example: many individuals who did not have insurance – that was their responsibility, not the government. Many of us, and I have to include myself. I’m an official, but I didn’t realize that I was under-insured – not willfully, but I did not really read the dotted line and I did not do my due diligence like I should have.”

Griffith also said that the responsibility for the blue roofs and damaged homes was shared. He pointed to homeowners who were using all the resources available to them to do their own repairs.

“A lot of homeowners have insurance and they’re using their insurance proceeds to repair their homes. They’re not waiting on the government. They’re doing that right now. But then at the day though, people need help. And, you know, that’s why we’re a society with government. The government is gonna help as best it can,” he said.

Drone video by Daryl Wade. 

Contact Options for Help

EnVIsion Tomorrow Housing Recovery and Rental Recovery Programs:
Website: www.vistormrecovery.com
Phone: (888) 239-3387
Address: 81 Castle Coakley

St. Croix Long Term Recovery Group:
Website: www.stxltrg.org
Phone: (340) 473-5305 or (340) 713-4440
Address: 1023 Market Street

St. Thomas Long Term Recovery Group:
Website: www.strtvi.org
Phone: 340-642-5442

St. John Long Term Recovery Group:
Email: [email protected]

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