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GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico – Carmen Torres has fought off overreaching city officials, gentrification and the punishing winds of Hurricane Maria.
As Puerto Rico approaches the one-year anniversary of the storm's landfall, Torres and others brace for a new adversary: developers emboldened by Maria's destruction and out to reshape some of the island's most vulnerable – and desirable – neighborhoods, including this one named "Vietnam" for the pitched battles it's had with police over the years.
"We're getting together and will keep fighting for Vietnam," Torres, 61, said. "They'd like to remove us one way or another."
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As post-Maria Puerto Rico shifts from recovery to long-term rebuilding, some of the island's most vulnerable neighborhoods anticipate a renewed push from developers and local officials to target their prime properties and displace residents.
Neighborhoods such as Vietnam in Guaynabo and Caño Martin Peña and Rio Pedras in San Juan have fought off gentrification for decades and activists said they expect a renewed effort post-Maria.
Maria, a Category 4 storm with winds of more than 155 mph, raked across Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, causing widespread damage across the island, crippling infrastructure and leading to about 3,000 deaths.
Neighborhoods such as Vietnam in Guaynabo and Caño Martin Peña and Martin Pena and Rio Pedras in San Juan have fought off gentrification for decades, and activists said they expect a renewed effort post-Maria.
Estrella Santiago, environmental affairs manager at Proyecto ENLACE, a group advocating for Caño Martin Peña, said organizers hope federal disaster funds could be used to dredge a 4-mile-long polluted channel that runs through the neighborhood – something residents have long lobbied for.
But Caño Martin Peña, about 5 miles south of Old San Juan, is more vulnerable to redevelopment and relocation of its residents as federal disaster dollars pour into the island, Santiago said. Maria badly flooded CañoMartin Peña, damaged homes and displaced hundreds of its residents.
"We're very concerned," Santiago said. "Federal funds coming to the island could be used to create a displacement of communities."
Part of her unease stems from the "Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery Action Plan," drafted by the state's housing department and approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in July. The document details how officials plan to spend $1.5 billion in approved federal disaster funds. It promises the island will take a "whole community" approach to rebuilding neighborhoods and solicit community input.
It also states that it won't limit Puerto Rico's ability to "conduct buyouts or acquisitions for destroyed and extensively damaged units or units in a floodplain."
Such language is common in post-disaster recovery plans and doesn't necessarily give officials power to acquire and revamp neighborhoods, said Jeff Thomas, a New Orleans attorney specializing in disaster recovery and funding who worked in New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding office.
But there is precedent for concern, he said. After Katrina flooded most of New Orleans in 2005, outside urban planners drafted a plan to rebuild the city that included turning entire neighborhoods into park space. The plan touched off a fiery dispute within the city, known as the "green dot" debate, and led to widespread community distrust in the post-disaster planning – a sentiment that still lingers, Thomas said.
"We're still in New Orleans suffering from that moment in a lot of ways," he said.
Omar Marrero, executive director of the Puerto Rico Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office, created to coordinate federal funding for post-Maria recovery, said federal disaster dollars will be used to rebuild homes and improve economic stability in neighborhoods, not displace residents. However, some people in flood-prone areas will probably have to move, he said.
"Obviously, there will be some relocations, particularly in floodplain areas," Marrero said. "Those will be relocated for safety reasons."
Those assurances do little to quell residents' fears in places such as Vietnam, a low-income waterfront community about 5 miles from San Juan's glittering beach resorts with a long history of fighting over property rights.
Residents relocating to the area in the 1960s and '70s built makeshift shacks along the southern banks of San Juan Bay, which were condemned and torn down by municipal police, said Gabriel Miranda, a filmmaker who made a documentary on the neighborhood's struggles titled "Vietnam, Puerto Rico."
The clashes between police and neighbors became so heated and bloody that the area was named "Vietnam," he said.
Another struggle emerged around 2011, when the municipality of Guaynabo began aggressively expropriating homes – or seizing properties through buyouts or eminent domain – to make way for a waterfront development of hotels and shops. Bulldozers appeared overnight, clearing out entire neighborhood blocks as residents were relocated to a new subdivision on the edge of town. Overall, the municipality relocated at least 301 families from their homes in Vietnam, Miranda said.
"When I arrived (in 2013), it was a war zone," he said. "There was rubble everywhere. People were depressed. You saw a lot of long faces. You could see the sadness."
Residents organized into groups and sued the municipality, winning a court-ordered halt to the demolitions. On a recent afternoon, Miranda drove through the neighborhood, pointing out empty lot after empty lot where homes once stood.
At the "Villa Pesquera de Vietnam," a gathering place for the area's fishermen, customers lined up for fried fish sandwiches, the glimmering waters of the bay just a few feet away. The building's roof was still in splinters from the hurricane.
Miranda said he fears more empty lots could be on the way after Maria.
"Unfortunately, the government of Puerto Rico has always had the vision that it's better to remove these families from these areas that are really valuable in order to establish tourist areas," said Miranda, who grew up in nearby Rio Piedras. "They don't let us choose where to live."
Victor Torres, 77, has lived the past 50 years in Vietnam. He said he remembers the days when residents would leave for work in the morning and return to bulldozed homes. About four years ago, a municipal official visited his home on the shores of the bay to offer him $128,000 for his property. He chased him off with a machete, Torres said.
He and his wife, Maria, raised five children in the home, who in turn gave them 13 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren, he said.
"This has sentimental value," Torres said. "You can't put a dollar price on this."
He pointed to seven empty lots just outside his property – all were longtime neighbors and friends who either took buyouts or were otherwise expropriated from their homes, he said.
"It breaks your heart," Torres said. "The people who lived here, they were all good people. All gone."
Carmen Torres (no relation to Victor) said the real heartbreak came a few years ago when work crews demolished a community center run by an order of Catholic nuns. "That was a low point," she said.
She's proud of how residents fought back and ended the demolitions, she said. Once a week, she tutors neighborhood children in reading and other subjects in her downstairs apartment, something the nuns once did.
Torres said she predicts residents here will stand their ground again should they be targeted for post-Maria redevelopment.
"I'll stay here to the end," she said. "I'll be the last one to go."