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Views and Experiences of Puerto Ricans One Year After Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 as a category 4 storm causing significant destruction across the U.S. territory leaving people with damaged homes, limited access to food and water, and in the dark due to massive power failures. Since the hurricane hit, news reports have described the far-reaching consequences of the storm, but data on how widespread some issues are has been lacking. In order to give voice to the people of Puerto Rico and to quantify the current status of the situation nearly one year after the storm’s devastation, the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post conducted an in-person representative survey in July and August 2018 of current adult residents of Puerto Rico who endured the storm nearly a year earlier.1 The survey explores Puerto Ricans’ experiences after the storm, their ongoing needs, and their views of rebuilding priorities going forward.

When thinking about the damage Hurricane Maria has done in Puerto Rico, it is important to note that the territory was already facing a variety of challenges before the hurricane struck. For example, the population is largely low income, with a median annual income of about $20,000, compared to $57,000 in the rest of the U.S.2 Even before Maria, the territory has been in economic crisis and experiencing outward migration as people leave for more opportunity elsewhere.3,4 Because of these factors, the hurricane likely further exacerbated issues that were already present on the island and made rebuilding that much more difficult.

This survey is part of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s ongoing efforts to survey and hear directly from those affected by major hurricanes throughout the U.S. It builds on a series of surveys that were conducted between 2005 and 2015 after Hurricane Katrina struck the New Orleans area and more recent work in the Texas Gulf Coast area after Hurricane Harvey.5,6 In Puerto Rico, the Kaiser Family Foundation also has done focus groups and in-depth interviews across the territory since the hurricane hit as well as covered the recovery progress with its news reporting through Kaiser Health News.7,8 And, while the Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post survey does not include residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands who were hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year due to the feasibility of interviewing in-person across multiple islands in multiple languages, the Kaiser Family Foundation has done in-depth interviews with residents and government officials to gather information about their ongoing experiences in the U.S.V.I.9

Some of the key findings from this survey of Puerto Rico residents are below:

Key findings:

  • Impacts of the storm were ubiquitous. Over eight in ten (83 percent) say they were affected by the hurricane in at least one of the following ways: they were without grid power for four or more months, they had employment losses, their home was destroyed or majorly damaged, their vehicle was damaged, they drank water from a natural source, they or a family member have a new or worsened health condition, or have received mental health services as a result of the storm. In addition, half say they had trouble getting enough water to drink (50 percent) and 70 percent say the lack of electricity caused them to have trouble storing and preparing fresh foods.
  • For some, the day-to-day life disruption continues. A quarter of Puerto Rican residents say their day-to-day life is still somewhat (18 percent) or very (7 percent) disrupted. While majorities say many aspects of their lives are about the same, or even better, than before the hurricane, some say specific aspects of their life are worse now than before Hurricane Maria, including their general level of stress (26 percent) or their personal financial situation (25 percent). In addition, some are still struggling with housing including 13 percent who say conditions in the place they are living are not safe and 6 percent who say their home that was damaged during the storm is still unlivable. Now, a year out from the storm, three in ten (31 percent) say they personally still need help repairing damage to their home and two in ten (21 percent) say they need help navigating systems for aid. Those with lower incomes (less than $20,000 annually) are more likely than others to report challenges related to housing. For example, 30 percent of those with lower incomes say their home was majorly damaged or destroyed, 17 percent say that conditions in their home are not safe, and 37 percent say they need more help repairing their damaged homes.
  • The storm brought physical and mental health challenges for some Puerto Ricans. About a quarter say they or a household member has a new or worsened health condition since the storm and 22 percent say they or a household member has received mental health services related to their experiences with Maria or that they or a household member needed mental health services since the storm but didn’t receive them. In addition, about a third (32 percent) say that as a result of Hurricane Maria they have faced at least one of several types of challenges accessing medical care, including problems getting needed medical care (16 percent), or trouble getting appointments with specialists (20 percent).
  • Households with someone who has a debilitating chronic condition or disability more often report negative health impacts of Maria. For example, they are more likely than others to say they or a household member has a new or worsened health condition (41 percent vs. 14 percent), to report problems getting needed care (26 percent vs. 11 percent), or to report getting mental health care due to Maria (17 percent vs. 5 percent).
  • Large majorities say more resources are necessary for rebuilding in Puerto Rico. In terms of community needs for rebuilding, large majorities say more resources are necessary in improving basic infrastructure like roads and highways (93 percent) and restoring the power grid (76 percent). Many also say more resources are needed in employment assistance (86 percent), repairing homes (78 percent), and in helping small businesses (79 percent).
  • Many express apprehension of Puerto Rico’s standing in the U.S. and how that may have affected the response and the recovery. More than half (55 percent) say that rebuilding Puerto Rico is not a priority for the federal government and six in ten (61 percent) say that the federal government’s response to Maria would have been better if it were a state. In addition, over half (54 percent) say the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria was worse than its response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that struck Texas and Florida around the same time. Across the board, majorities rate the storm response of the local, territory, and federal government as fair or poor, while smaller shares rate the response as good, very good, or excellent.
  • Looking forward, half of Puerto Ricans are optimistic, but worries are widespread. Puerto Ricans lean towards being optimistic about the future of the Many know people who have left the island and some are considering leaving themselves. Worries about future hurricanes, electricity outages, and accessing needed health care services are pervasive and majorities say both the federal government and Puerto Ricans are not prepared to deal with future hurricanes in Puerto Rico.
  • The report also includes comparisons to the views and experiences of those in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina and those in the Texas Gulf Coast area after Hurricane Harvey, as well as the U.S. public’s perceptions of how Puerto Ricans are faring and the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria.
Overview Section 1: Quantifying Hurricane Maria’s Wide Ranging Impacts

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.