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Puerto Ricans are racing against the clock to apply for disaster aid

Less than a fifth of the population has been approved for individual assistance with only a month left before the deadline.

A month after Hurricane Maria, nearly 90 percent of Puerto Rico still doesn’t have electricity, and half of the island’s cell phone towers are out. But residents need either the internet or to make a call to apply for disaster aid with FEMA.

Although the U.S. agency’s personnel are handing out paper copies to rural areas, less than a fifth of the population has been approved for individual assistance with only a month left before the deadline. In fact, Oxfam is now asking Congress to extend the window another 60 days.


“They aren’t able to do the forms online or even print them out,” said Shannon Scribner, Oxfam America’s acting director of Humanitarian Programs and Policy. “The deadline that’s looming is the most important thing right now.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and took the lives of at least 49 people, over four thousand Puerto Ricans are still living in shelters. Not everyone has access to clean water, and healthcare workers are worried about the spread of disease.

Read: Disease-spreading mosquitoes could soon overrun Puerto Rico

Official FEMA policy allows up to 60 days to fill out a form for assistance after the declaration of a disaster. Hurricane Maria received its “major disaster declaration” on Sept. 20, which makes the cut off Nov. 19. While all areas of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands are eligible for “individual assistance,” just 184,093 applications have been approved — less than a fifth of the total population.

FEMA has more than 1,700 personnel on the ground in Puerto Rico, the agency reported in its latest update. It’s also made an effort to get physical forms into the hands of residents, especially in rural, more isolated areas. Overall, about 740,000 residents have been registered for help — some through physical applications — and are awaiting approval.

But each paper assistance form takes 45 minutes to process and requires transporting the forms in a lockbox back to the capital. There’s only so many FEMA can process in a day. Efforts to bring power and cell phone service back to the island are front and center of the recovery effort. But officials say it could be another six months and cost $5 billion.

In addition to extending the disaster aid deadline, Oxfam is also pushing for debt forgiveness, issuing grants instead of loans to the devastated island, and extending the waiver on the Jones Act, a century-old trade law that was hampering efforts to send aid. Trump’s waiver expired without renewal on Oct. 9.

So far, Oxfam has received some support in its efforts, according to Scribner. But as an international organization mainly focused on developing countries, the organization doesn’t have strong connections with FEMA.

Read: FEMA has been deleting facts about Puerto Rico from its website

Cover image: In this Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 photo, Jesus Soto Rosado puts his socks on after spending the night at a school-turned-shelter for residents left homeless by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)