Puerto Rican lawyer advocates for justice after hurricane

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After losing electricity around 4 a.m., Adi Martínez Román braced herself for the worst as Hurricane Maria slammed into her Puerto Rican home in September 2017.

“I have to tell you I was really, really afraid,” Román said. “Being in a Category 5 hurricane is like having a train go by your house for 24 hours, knowing that everything outside is getting wrecked.”

Román, human rights activist and executive director of the Access to Justice Fund Foundation, said she was luckily unharmed. Others weren’t as fortunate. Virtually all electricity on the island was gone and water services were unavailable, forcing residents to the use rivers for bathing.

“After it passed, what we found was a humongous amount of destruction. Basically, 472,000 homes were affected by the hurricane, 385,703 suffered major damage and 87,000 were totally destroyed,” Román said Friday at the Indiana State Bar Association Latino Affairs Committee’s annual Hispanic Heritage month event.

In an effort to celebrate the importance of Hispanic culture and tradition, Román spoke about the challenges presented by Hurricane Maria to Puerto Rican communities. Specifically, she discussed the ways in which the legal community was able to provide some relief to those desperate for help.

As time passed and little to no assistance arrived, Román resolved to address the dire need for legal aid and justice in Puerto Rican communities on her own. Response times were too low, the stakes too high, and the need to great. Even worse, those seeking to apply for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency faced a dead end. 

“Without electricity, no one could do their FEMA applications because the applications have to be done by internet or by phone,” she said. “We didn’t have either of those options. People needed to start trying to build back their homes, and they didn’t have the resources.”

Román and several other lawyers freely volunteer their help, offering legal assistance to those applying for FEMA aid. The lawyers help people fill out FEMA applications on paper. Once the lawyers return to their offices where electricity is available, they enter the information on computers and submit the applications.

By January 2018, Román said of more than 1 million FEMA applications submitted by Puerto Ricans impacted by the hurricane, 61 percent were denied. About 80,000 cases were rejected due to lack of proof of homeownership. Only 43,000 appealed, many giving up on the first try.

The worst thing, Román discovered, was her struggle in making FEMA officials understand the complex history of Puerto Rico and its property registry process. Most Puerto Rican families inherit property from their ancestors, but many lack the funds to clear who has succession to the title.

After more than eight months of advocating, Román received approval from FEMA officials allowing applications previously denied due to lack of ownership proof to appeal. But, she said, FEMA failed to notify anyone of the change.

Román said current efforts to bring Puerto Rican communities justice and access to legal aid continues. With limited resources and financial support, she said assistance from U.S. organizations such as the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy have been a huge help.

“The situation in Puerto Rico is really dire,” she said. “We need the consciousness of the people in the United States in order to be able to reconstruct through self-determination.”

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