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Picking up the pieces: Puerto Rico’s double hurricane disaster

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First Irma, then Maria: Hurricane season packed a mean one-two punch for Puerto Rico, home to 3.4 million American citizens. While communication has been limited, real estate firms with affiliates on the island have been reaching out to their agents dealing with the devastation, while the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and franchisors work to provide additional aid.

It’s been almost a week since the second of the two malicious storm sisters hit Puerto Rico directly on Wednesday, Sept. 20, ravaging the populous capital city of San Juan. Food and water remain scarce while the island remains basically powerless. Farms have been destroyed, cellphone towers are down and the death toll may escalate into the hundreds, according to a report by Vox, which noted that half of Americans aren’t aware that Puerto Ricans are entitled to the same government response as any other U.S. territory.

“Our infrastructure and energy distribution systems suffered great damages,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello in a statement Monday describing what he called a “humanitarian disaster.” He called for the “full support of the U.S. government.” Vox reported that Puerto Rico’s “government is broke. Its infrastructure is aging and in disrepair on a good day. And it can’t borrow money to fix it,” and that the hurricane’s damages will only exacerbate the economic mess.

President Donald Trump indicated his administration’s plans to assist the storm-battered U.S. territory today, a day after tweeting about the island’s billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and describing FEMA’s top priorities of food, water and medical as “doing well.”

“All available federal resources, including the military, are being marshaled to save lives,” Trump said this afternoon in announcing his intent to visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday, after facing criticism for his delayed response to the situation.

Homes lay in ruin as seen from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, Black Hawk during a flyover of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria September 23, 2017. Photo by Kris Grogan.

The National Association of Realtors said it had managed to reach the Puerto Rico Association of Realtors and planned to up the funding it had already allocated after Irma.

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“NAR’s Realtors Relief Fund granted funds to Puerto Rico for the effects of Hurricane Irma; now with Maria’s direct hit on the island, NAR will continue to support them with available grant dollars,” said NAR spokeswoman Sara Wiskerchen. “We corresponded with the association executive in Puerto Rico last night and expect to have an update phone call later this week to determine how NAR and the Realtors Relief Fund can best help.”

Keller Williams’s charity arm KW Cares is also mobilized to send support and supplies, including generators and food, said spokesman Darryl Frost. The franchisor was still deciding how best to send support.

Dispatch from agents: ‘Puerto Rico is in an emergency situation’

A number of larger real estate firms with franchises and offices in Puerto Rico had managed to reach their agents on the ground by Tuesday.

Orbe Soto of Keller Williams Grand Homes

Sotheby’s International Realty, which has had an office in San Juan since 2012, had been able to contact its agents there, the company reported from its annual International Realty Global Networking Event in Las Vegas.

“We have been in touch with our colleagues at Puerto Rico Sotheby’s International Realty and we are relieved to share that they are OK. The staff is safe and the offices sustained minimal damage,” said Michael Valdes, global vice president, international servicing, Sotheby’s International Realty.

By Tuesday, Keller Williams Worldwide had been in touch with its regional operating principal, Orbe Soto, head of its franchise (Keller Williams Grand Homes) in Puerto Rico and around half of the firm’s 70 agents. Keller Williams only opened the franchise, which has two offices, in February this year.

Soto, speaking on a mobile phone, said that it was difficult to drive around to see how properties had fared in the storm — and it sounded as though at this point, such work wasn’t top priority. Ninety percent of Puerto Rico has no internet and no phone communication, he said, and the wait at gas stations was five or six hours long.

Ivan Zavala of Reality Realty

Ivan Zavala, from Puerto Rico-based Reality Realty, a member of Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, told Inman via email: “Puerto Rico is in an emergency situation. We all know that crises bring new opportunities, but we still need more time to have a better understanding of where we are; it is too early to know.

“In my personal opinion I believe that there will be a lot of demand for rentals as families have lost their homes and will look for a new one,” he said. “Also, professionals will look to share spaces with power and electricity to rent.”

Dan Conn, CEO of Christie’s International Real Estate, which has an affiliate in Puerto Rico’s San Juan, Trillion Realty Group, had been in touch with the company’s Puerto Rico branch led by Leticia “Letty” Brunet Gonzalez.

“They are struggling but they are already trying to focus on getting back to business,” Conn said. “But there’s the reality that it is going to take a little bit of time for the island to stabilize and clear out the debris.”

“At this time the real estate market is very fragile, but I believe that with the total support of the United States, Puerto Rico will recover and the real estate market will shine again,” said Gonzalez. “Many others have suffered similar experiences, and with the support of the U.S. government, they have recovered and prospered.

“I hope and pray that Puerto Rico will not be an exception, and that our present Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares, with his extraordinary leadership capacity, will bring Puerto Rico back to its best days.”

The island will come back stronger

Keller Williams franchisee Soto was upbeat about the recovery of the majority of homes in Puerto Rico, which are made of concrete. It was the old, wooden properties that were damaged or destroyed in Maria, he said.

“This is an opportunity to make our systems stronger and to make sure if this happens again that we have the infrastructure to withstand it,” Soto said. “There is always an opportunity to make things better than before. Those properties that mainlanders buy are pretty well-built with storm windows. They may need restoring but those structures are very strong.”

No one is backing out of investing in Puerto Rico, he added. “We have people right now who are under contract to buy properties and they seem positive,” he said.

Soto sat down yesterday with one of the largest lenders in Puerto Rico to talk about how to help people who have lost their homes, and the advice will be to build in concrete rather than wood.

“There is a lot to be done but if you see people here, you have to understand that everybody is very positive. We have to work harder to get Puerto Rico back on its feet. And in a year we will be better than ever,” Soto said.

Conn had brainstormed with affiliates everywhere asking for ideas for how to help the island rebuild.

“Thinking about the rebuilding effort, I have sent a letter out to our network, for people to give suggestions of groups to work with and help,” Conn said. “Christie’s is a luxury brand, but we have to be more holistic about the recovery effort in the hardest-hit areas.”

If the people providing the backbone of the tourism industry don’t have housing, access to water, or power, everyone is affected, he said.

“On the one hand you have an extremely favorable tax environment and an area that is physically beautiful, with beautiful towns like San Juan and close to the U.S. mainland with beautiful beaches, then you have two issues, the debt and now the aftermath of the hurricane,” Conn said.

Despite this, wealthy buyers will continue to seek out places like Puerto Rico, Conn expects, because the island simply offers something that the mainland can’t.

Email Gill South.