NEW YORK, June 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Puerto Rico should use some of the billions of dollars in aid pledged after a deadly hurricane last year to fix a flawed land ownership system that is hampering reconstruction, community leaders said in a report published on Wednesday.
Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $90 billion in damage when it hit Puerto Rico last September in the U.S. territory's worst natural disaster in nearly a century.
The federal government has pledged $18.5 billion to help rebuild housing and infrastructure, but experts say many islanders will struggle to access reconstruction aid because they do not officially own the land their homes are built on.
Land titling needs "urgent attention", said Xavier de Souza Briggs, a vice-president and urban planner at the Ford Foundation, which co-funded the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission report along with the Rockefeller Foundation and The Open Society Foundations.
"If we do not work together very quickly on that, the island will not be able to access billions of dollars of federal funding," he said.
Up to 50 percent of Puerto Rico's 1.2 million homes are thought to be "informal" - built on land the inhabitants do not own - said the commission, which recommended that data on them be collected for inclusion in the land registry.
"We owe it to every single one of them - the people who passed away (in the hurricane) - that we do things better and right for the next generation," said architect Ricardo Alvarez-Diaz, who helped compile the commission's recommendations.
"It is our chance to look at Puerto Rico again," he said in a telephone briefing on the recommendations, based on public consultations with grassroots groups, businesses and experts.
The commission also recommended aid funds be used to make the island more resilient to future disasters, such as equipping hospitals with back-up power, as this year's hurricane season gets under way.
A Harvard University study in May concluded the hurricane may have caused as many as 4,645 deaths - many more than the official government toll of 64 - around a third of them due to delayed or interrupted medical care.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)