Views and Experiences of Puerto Ricans One Year After Hurricane Maria
Section 1: Quantifying Hurricane Maria’s Wide Ranging Impacts
Hurricane Maria’s impacts ranged widely, from interrupting basic services such as electricity and water to damaging homes, and limiting individuals’ employment opportunities. While organizations such as the power company and local and federal governments have released data on the number of people without electricity or applying for assistance to repair their homes, this is the first comprehensive, island-wide representative survey to assess a broad array of the storm’s impacts and hear directly from the people of Puerto Rico about what they experienced and what the ongoing needs are.
Hurricane Maria’s impacts were pervasive. 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 (44 percent), they had employment losses (42 percent), their home was destroyed or majorly damaged (26 percent), their vehicle was damaged (21 percent), they drank water from a natural source (21 percent), they or a family member have a new or worsened health condition (23 percent), or have received mental health services as a result of the storm (9 percent). Those closest to the path of the hurricane are somewhat more likely to say they were impacted (89 percent) than those further from the eye of the storm, however, still 74 percent of those more than 20 miles from the storm’s path say they were impacted in at least one of these ways, indicating the storm’s widespread effects across the entire island. Each of these impact areas is explored more in the following sections.
Many Plagued by Long-Term Power Outages
Power outages were universal after the storm and while electricity has just recently been fully restored, many were without grid power for several months and some were without power for six months or longer.1 Just 12 percent say their power was restored in October, the month after the storm, while 37 percent say it was restored in November or December, and 25 percent say it was restored in January or February. For others (19 percent), it was restored in March or later, roughly six or more months after the hurricane. Residents in areas closest to the center of the storm are more likely to say they had longer periods without grid power than others. For example, three in ten adults in Puerto Rico who live in municipalities that were within ten miles of the center of the storm say they had their power restored in March or later (30 percent), at least twice the share of people who were further from the storm’s center. In the eastern region, where the storm made landfall, 44 percent say their power was restored in March or later.
With this long-term loss of electricity came consequences. Seven in ten adults in Puerto Rico who were there during Hurricane Maria say the loss of electricity caused them to have problems storing or preparing fresh foods. Nearly three in ten report more potentially consequential challenges such as problems storing medications safely (29 percent) and problems using medical devices that needed electricity (26 percent).
Although power has been recently restored island-wide, a large share (77 percent) report recent outages lasting at least an hour. Three in ten (31 percent) report that in the past month they have lost power for more than an hour at least four times and another 35 percent say they have lost power for more than an hour two or three times.
Lack Of Water Led Some To Drink From Rivers and Streams
Another area where people faced significant challenges after the hurricane was in accessing fresh water. Half of people living in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria said they or someone in their household had problems getting enough water to drink after the hurricane and 21 percent say they drank water from a natural source, such as a stream or river. Many report being very or somewhat worried about the quality of water in their home since the hurricane (53 percent).
Home Damage Was Widespread
Overall, two-thirds (66 percent) report their home was damaged as a result of the hurricane. About a quarter say that their home suffered major damage (23 percent) or was destroyed (3 percent), while 40 percent describe the damage to their home as minor. Most of those with home damage (74 percent) say they did not have homeowners’ or renters’ insurance at the time the hurricane hit, while 22 percent say they did. Reports of majorly damaged or destroyed homes are more common among those with incomes of less than $20,000 a year than those with higher incomes (30 percent vs. 21 percent).
A frequently reported image of home damage in Puerto Rico after the hurricane has been blue tarps covering roofs. Fifteen percent say they have used plastic sheeting or a tarp to cover their roof at some point since the hurricane, including more than a third (38 percent) of those who report their home was destroyed or majorly damaged. Nearly half of those who used a tarp or plastic sheeting to cover their roof say they are still using one (7 percent overall). The use of tarps was more common among those with incomes of less than $20,000, with about one-fifth saying they used a plastic tarp compared to about one in ten of those with higher incomes (19 percent vs. 8 percent).
While about a quarter (24 percent) of adults say that their damaged home has been restored to its original status, about four in ten say their damaged home is now in a livable condition but it’s not the same as before Maria (34 percent) or that it’s still unlivable (6 percent). People that were closest to the center of the storm (in a municipality within 10 miles) are more likely than those furthest away (in a municipality more than 20 miles from the storm’s center) to say their homes are livable but not in the same condition or that their home is still unlivable (45 percent vs. 32 percent). In addition, those with an annual household income of less than $20,000 are more likely than those with higher incomes to say their homes are livable but not the same as before Maria (38 percent vs. 29 percent) or that their home is still unlivable (8 percent vs. 2 percent). Some also say the current conditions in their home are not safe (13 percent), including 17 percent of those with incomes of less than $20,000.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration provide disaster assistance for some people after hurricanes. In Puerto Rico, 63 percent say they applied for assistance through either source, largely through FEMA (62 percent). For those applying for assistance through FEMA, more than a quarter of adults living in Puerto Rico say they applied and were denied (28 percent), while about as many say their application was approved (27 percent). A few others say they applied and that their application is still pending (4 percent) or they are not sure of its status (3 percent). Among those who were approved, most were satisfied with the assistance they received (71 percent) but others were not (28 percent).
About a quarter of Puerto Rico residents still living on the island say they evacuated their home after the storm (27 percent) and most of them (88 percent of evacuees) went somewhere else in the territory. Because the survey was conducted face-to-face with current residents on the island, this estimate of the share who evacuated, by definition, does not include any residents who may have evacuated and not returned to Puerto Rico.2 Nearly half of the evacuees (13 percent of Puerto Ricans overall) say they were away from their home for at least a month, including 10 percent of evacuees (3 percent of Puerto Ricans overall) who say they haven’t returned home yet.
Financial Challenges Since the Hurricane
As noted above, about four in ten (42 percent) report employment losses, such as being laid off or losing a job (12 percent), having overtime or regular hours cut back at work (28 percent), or any other loss of income such as lost income from a small business or unpaid missed days of work (24 percent). Those making at least $20,000 a year are somewhat more likely to report having hours cut than those who are lower income (38 percent vs. 26 percent).
In addition to challenges with employment, nearly half (47 percent) report at least one of several types of financial challenges since Hurricane Maria, including having problems paying for food (26 percent), having to borrow money from friends or relatives in order to make ends meet (24 percent), having to take on an extra job or working extra hours to make ends meet (22 percent), or falling behind in paying their rent or mortgage (17 percent).
Physical and Mental Health Impacts
In addition to some saying their mental or physical health is worse after the storm, about a third (32 percent) report at least one of several issues related to getting medical care for themselves or a family member since the hurricane. One-fifth report that, as a result of the storm, they or a household member had trouble seeing a specialist (20 percent); others report problems getting needed care (16 percent), getting a prescription filled (15 percent), or that they had to go to a different doctor than they had before the storm (15 percent). One in ten (10 percent) say they had trouble getting emergency care for themselves or a family member.
When asked more directly about how the storm affected health, nearly a quarter (23 percent) say that they or a household member has a new or worsened health condition as a result of the storm. Of those with a debilitating chronic condition or disability or a household member with one, 41 percent say a health condition is new or worse for themselves or a family member after the storm. The reported health impacts for this group are more pronounced and described in detail on page 17.
In terms of specific mental health impacts, 13 percent say they have taken a new prescription medicine or increased their dose since the storm for problems with their emotions, nerves, or mental health. About two in ten (22 percent) say they or a household member received mental health care related to their experiences with the storm (9 percent) or think they or a household member needed mental health services since the storm but didn’t receive them (17 percent).
The storm’s death toll has been a subject of controversy with varying estimates and reports.3 In order to get a general sense of how many people in Puerto Rico attribute a loved one’s death to the storm, the survey asked if anyone close to them died as a result of the storm. In response, about one in five (19 percent) say that someone close to them, such as a family member or close friend, died as a result of Hurricane Maria, either because they were injured during the storm or because they had trouble getting clean water, food, or medical care in the months after the storm. This broad measure of Puerto Ricans’ perception of the death toll is not meant to be an epidemiological estimate. It may include people whose loved one would have died soon after the storm regardless, or may double count individuals that multiple people knew given that the in-person interviews happened in localized areas, but it does suggest that some people across the island associate the hurricane with the death of a loved one.
|Spotlight On Households With An Individual With A Debilitating Chronic Condition Or Disability
Adults who either have a debilitating health condition or live in a household with someone who does are much more likely to report negative health impacts of Hurricane Maria. For example, they’re more likely than others to say they or a household member has a new or worsened health condition, to report problems getting needed care, or to report getting mental health care due to Maria. In addition, roughly four in ten say that the loss of electricity to their home caused them to have problems storing medications safely (41 percent) or say it caused problems using medical devices that needed electricity (39 percent).
Looking forward, this group is also more likely than others to say their lives are still at least somewhat disrupted (37 percent vs. 20 percent) and to say they need more help in getting the medical or mental health care they or their family need.
Residents’ Assessment of the Storm’s Personal Impact
Despite these various impacts, most adults in Puerto Rico say many aspects of their life are about the same as they were compared to before the hurricane hit. In many areas similar shares say better as say worse, such as their housing situation, job situation, physical and mental health, and overall quality of life. However, in other areas such as their personal financial situation and general level of stress, more say things are worse now than better.
And, for those with children, majorities say the mental and physical health of their kids and their school situation is about the same as it was before the storm. Notably, 18 percent say their child’s school situation is worse than before the storm, but a similar share (14 percent) say it is better.