SAN JUAN — With thousands of people still in shelters more than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, Puerto Rico has launched its own version of a temporary housing program piloted in Louisiana after last year's catastrophic floods.
Gov. John Bel Edwards joined Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Monday to announce the Tu Hogar Renace program, which is modeled after Louisiana's Shelter at Home.
"There's nothing more important to people in times like this than just the ability to be at home with their family and friends, and that's what this program is all about," said Edwards, who arrived in San Juan earlier Monday and is expected to return to Louisiana Tuesday evening.
Edwards and members of his administration have been in regular contact with Puerto Rico's leaders since Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 20.
"Nobody knows more about this," Rosselló said, thanking the Louisiana governor for his continued advice and for coming to see the devastated island first-hand.
Before holding a press conference to announce the housing assistance program, the two governors and other disaster recovery leaders walked debris-lined streets in Toa Baja, a town just west of San Juan that was badly battered and flooded by the storm.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Gov. John Bel Edwards and top disaster recovery leaders from his adm…
"It looked like a lake," Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil said, showing Edwards photos on his cellphone.
The group dropped into several homes at the homeowners' invitations, touring the mostly shelled out structures. Many of the houses were still muddy from the hurricane's floodwaters. The sound of generators hummed loudly at the homes that can still afford to run them. Those who cannot, remain without power.
"God bless you," Edwards repeated from house-to-house with first lady Donna Edwards.
Several of the residents lined the streets to greet Edwards and tell him their stories from the storm.
"I lost everything," one man said, shaking his head.
It was a familiar sight for Louisiana's emergency officials after rounds of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters the state has seen in recent years.
"We call them debris piles, but these are people's lives," Edwards said, gesturing over mounds of broken furniture, clothes and toys.
Earlier in the day, Edwards took part in a series of meetings with the island's leaders at La Fortaleza, the governor's residence that was built in Old San Juan in the 1500s.
"We have more experience doing this than we'd like to have," Edwards said as he was greeted for the recovery discussions.
Rosselló, the Puerto Rican governor, said he's excited about the Tu Hogar Renace, or STEPS, program and what it will mean for the U.S. territory's recovery. Like Shelter at Home, STEPS is being paid for through Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery dollars.
"It starts giving the people of Puerto Rico affected by the storm the first instruments to start rehabilitating their homes in a temporary fashion," Rosselló said.
Louisiana's Shelter at Home program faced mixed reviews. It was loosely modeled after a program implemented in New York after Superstorm Sandy, but Louisiana had to talk the federal government into trying it again and faced several restrictions on what the money could go toward.
The program, which came in at a price tag of about $156 million, offered bare-bones improvements to flooded homes – minor electrical and plumbing repairs, air conditioning and heating restoration, and basic bathroom and kitchen replacements.
It faced a backlash from some homeowners unhappy with the scope of the work and some leaders who questioned the cost for work that was only temporary – a point that Edwards has repeatedly defended as being a product of federal restrictions.
Officials from Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands have also sought Louisiana's advice for starting similar programs in those states that have also been affected by major hurricanes this year.
Edwards said he thinks that Puerto Rico and others will benefit from the hurdles faced in Louisiana and the feedback that the state offered FEMA in Shelter at Home's wake. Puerto Rico has received approval to expand its program to cover additional repairs not covered in Louisiana's, including offering solar panels and generators in some cases, to address Puerto Rico's power infrastructure issues.
"This just goes to show how partnerships are important – not just the federal and state and local level – but also what we can learn from one another," Edwards said. "We're happy to be here and hopefully contributing to some degree to what I'm sure is going to be a successful program."