‘Worse Than Anything You’ve Seen on TV’
“It’s literally like the whole island was bombed.” —Puerto Rico Association of REALTORS® Executive Director Marcos Vilar on the widespread devastation left behind by Hurricane Maria. (Photo credit: Kris Grogan/U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Wikimedia)
The real estate community in Puerto Rico is working frantically to help deliver emergency supplies to the island’s 3 million residents, most of whom are in total darkness—without electricity, clean water, or adequate shelter—a week after Hurricane Maria left the entire nation in catastrophic ruin. “Devastation is everywhere,” Marcos Vilar, executive director at the Puerto Rico Association of REALTORS®, told REALTOR® Magazine on Monday. Vilar and other association executives were able to get temporary cellular coverage in order to speak by phone.
The Puerto Rican government is trying to restore electricity by delivering diesel fuel and generators to residents, but service is inconsistent and only available sporadically during the day. Full restoration of electricity may take a year, according to reports. “It’s literally like the whole island was bombed,” Vilar said. “Homes that were reinforced with concrete were snapped in two like toothpicks. Trees are down. There’s no electricity. It’s heart-breaking.”
Make a Donation
Puerto Rico is in desperate need of generators, diesel fuel and gas, antibiotics and medicine, insect repellent, and food. In addition, the REALTORS® Relief Foundation is now accepting donations to go toward mortgage and rental assistance for hurricane relief. Those affected will receive 100 percent of all donations. Make a tax-deductible donation at nar.realtor/rrf.
Vilar, Puerto Rico Association of REALTORS® President Eduardo Santos, and President-elect Eddie Lopez were assessing the damage to the association’s headquarters on Monday. The building, they said, suffered extensive water damage after Maria—which hit the island as a Category 4 storm, packing sustained winds of 155 mph—ripped off its roof and mangled its air conditioning system. Maria is still churning in the Atlantic as a Category 1 hurricane, and is threatening the East Coast of the United States with tropical storm-force winds and flooding.
Real estate professionals in Puerto Rico were cleaning up the association building Monday morning, even as their own homes suffered similar damage. “We came to our building to try to start cleaning up the headquarters,” Lopez said. “Then, we can help our membership and their families.”
Mike Ford, GRI, broker-owner of Coldwell Banker Heritage Homes in West Memphis, Ark., and a 2015 NAR vice president, has maintained close contact with Puerto Rico association executives. Ford is working to identify their most immediate needs and has been coordinating the delivery of a generator to the association building. Once power is restored there, the office will serve as the main point of contact for REALTOR® relief efforts, Ford said.
Webinar: How REALTORS® Can Help After a Storm
The Council of Residential Specialists is hosting a free webinar to teach all real estate professionals how they can help to prepare their communities for a natural disaster. The webinar, “Before and After the Storm: How REALTORS® Can Assist their Customers and Community,” will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 1 p.m. CT. It will offer information that you can provide to customers, the community, and your social network regarding insurance, emergency supplies, and house prep before a disaster strikes. It will also include talks about FEMA’s role and what to do after a disaster event has occurred. Register online at crs.com/education or call 800-462-8841.
“Some of our members lost everything—their car and home,” Santos said. The full extent of the damage from the hurricane remains unknown, and the association thus far has been unable to communicate with its members.
“Everyone in Puerto Rico has been affected in some way,” Ford said. “Everybody had damage to their homes.” He shared a text message he received from one Puerto Rican REALTOR® who returned to the island after Maria: “I wasn’t prepared for this. This is worse than anything you’ve seen on TV.”
The Guajataca Dam in the northwestern part of the island still threatens to wreak even more calamity. The dam suffered wall cracks during the hurricane and threatens to flood the homes of about 70,000 people living nearby, all of whom have been evacuated. Rebuilding efforts for Puerto Rico will be extensive. AIR Worldwide, a catastrophe-risk-modeling firm, estimates that Hurricane Maria caused between $40 billion and $85 billion in insured losses on islands across the Caribbean.
The storm is only the latest major hardship for Puerto Rico, which has been in economic recession for the last 11 years. Its housing market posted a record number of foreclosures last year and was on par to top that this year. However, the real estate market had been rebounding in recent months, with more buyers from the American mainland purchasing second homes or investment properties on the island. But only about 50 percent of houses in Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory, are covered by insurance policies that protect against wind damage, according to AIR Worldwide.
Hurricane Maria “is going to be a huge setback to the island,” Ford says. “It will be a long time after this tragedy until normal life is restored to this beautiful island.” Hurricane Maria was the latest of three massive hurricanes—including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—to strike in the Caribbean and U.S. in the past month.
“We’ve never had three catastrophic events happen back-to-back in less than a month,” says Patty Garcia, managing director of the REALTORS® Relief Foundation. “There’s a need for donations. We are currently working with the Puerto Rico, Florida, and Virgin Islands REALTOR® associations. We are in touch with the leaders in those areas. We’re going to try to help the most we can. We know a lot of help is needed.”
—Melissa Dittmann Tracey, REALTOR® Magazine