Thousands of Puerto Ricans were finally getting water and food rations Friday as an aid bottleneck began to ease, but many remained cut off from the basic necessities of life and were desperate for power, communications and other trappings of normality in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
There were many people across the island, especially outside the capital, unable to get water, gas or generator fuel. That was despite the fact that military trucks laden with water bottles and other supplies began to reach even some remote parts of Puerto Rico and U.S. federal officials pointed to progress in the recovery effort, insisting that more gains would come soon.
In some cases, aid that was being distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency was simply not enough to meet demand on an island of 3.4 million people where nearly everyone was still without power, half were without running water in their homes and the economy was still crippled from the effects of the storm that swept across the U.S. territory as a fierce Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 20.
“I haven’t seen any help and we’re running out of water,” said Pedro Gonzalez, who was clearing debris to earn some money in the northern coastal town of Rio Grande. Increasingly desperate and with a daughter with Down syndrome to support, he had already decided to move to Louisiana to stay with relatives. “We’re getting out of here.”
Telecommunications were back for about 30 percent of the island, giving some people the critical ability to call relatives and others for help. Nearly half of the supermarkets had opened, at least on reduced hours, and about 60 percent of the gas stations, though it could take hours to buy a rationed amount. In San Juan, the news that a laundromat had reopened cheered some, as did the news that some buses and the rideshare service Uber would be back online in San Juan.
Meanwhile, FEMA officials said the agency had distributed 2.5 million liters of water and 2 million meals at 11 distribution centers including the nearby islands of Culebra and Vieques. Nearly 1,700 Department of Defense personnel were on the island and 3,000 more were expected in upcoming days.
Despite the easing of the aid distribution bottleneck, water was the greatest need cited by nearly everyone. Those lucky enough to have had service restored to their homes said it was sporadic so that authorities could ration it around the country.
Thousands more Puerto Ricans got water and rationed food Friday as an aid bottleneck began to ease. By now, telecommunications are back for about 30 percent of the island, nearly half of the supermarkets have reopened at least for reduced hours and about 60 percent of the gas stations are pumping. But many remain desperate for necessities, most urgently water, long after the Sept. 20 hurricane.
Hurricane stresses Puerto Rico’s already weak health system
Of all the problems unleashed by the storm, which roared over the island Sept. 20 as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 155 mph, the plight of overtaxed hospitals and smaller clinics — and health care in general — is one of the most worrying for officials grappling with recovery efforts.
The health system in the U.S. territory was already precarious, with a population that is generally sicker, older and poorer than that of the mainland, long waits and a severe shortage of specialists as a result of a decade-long economic recession. The island of 3.4 million people has higher rates of HIV, asthma, diabetes and some types of cancer, as well as tropical diseases such as the mosquito-borne Zika and dengue viruses.
In Maria’s wake, hospitals and their employees are wrestling with the same shortages of basic necessities as everyone else. There are people who are unable to keep insulin or other medicines refrigerated. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the tropical heat as widespread power outages mean no air conditioning. And amid the widespread disruption, it’s often difficult to get kids to a doctor, especially for families who can’t afford to drive long distances on a tank running out of gasoline.
Maria knocked out electricity to the entire island, and only a handful of Puerto Rico’s 63 hospitals had generators operating at full power. Even those started to falter amid a shortage of diesel to fuel them and a complete breakdown in the distribution network.
Trump praises Puerto Rico aid, mayor says it’s ‘killing us
President Donald Trump pledged to spare no effort to help Puerto Ricans recover from Maria’s ruinous aftermath Friday even as San Juan’s mayor, her voice breaking with rage, accused his administration of “killing us with the inefficiency.”
Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz implored Trump from afar to “make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives,” while the president asserted that U.S. officials and emergency personnel are working all-out against daunting odds, with “incredible” results.
Trump’s acting homeland security secretary, Elaine Duke, visited the island Friday, surveying the ravaged landscape by helicopter in an hourlong tour, driving past still-flooded streets, twisted billboards and roofs with gaping holes, and offering encouragement to some of the 10,000 emergency personnel she says the U.S. government has on the ground.
Duke tried, too, to move on from the remarks she made a day earlier in which she called the federal relief effort a “good-news story.” But on that front, she ran into winds as fierce as Maria.
“We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency,” Cruz said in a news conference. “I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us, to save us from dying.”
Bush famously told his emergency management director, Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” during what proved to be a tragically inept federal response to deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Trump has repeatedly boasted about the positive reviews he said his administration is getting from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for its relief effort, even as people in remote towns struggle to find food, water and other basics. Then Duke said before leaving Washington that the federal relief effort was a “good-news story” because of “our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths.”
He praised his emergency management director, Brock Long, for doing a “fantastic job,” pointed out that Duke is serving in an acting capacity and said “she’s working very hard.”
Maria dims Puerto Rico’s bleak economic outlook
Hurricane Maria has thrown Puerto Rico’s already messy economic recovery plans into disarray.
For now, the focus has shifted from Puerto Rico’s financial woes to meeting the basic needs of its 3.5 million people, many of whom still lack adequate food, water and power more than a week since the Category 4 hurricane laid waste to the U.S. territory. But as Puerto Rico emerges from the worst of the disaster, it will still face a $74 billion public debt load and a decade-old economic recession that has sent hundreds of thousands of islanders fleeing to the U.S. mainland.
The hurricane has interrupted court proceedings and mediation efforts with creditors aimed at restructuring the debt. The destruction will severely disrupt revenue flows and force a recalculation of a fiscal plan, painfully negotiated with federal oversight board appointed to oversee Puerto Rico’s finances. While there is some potential for federal recovery money and insurance payouts to jolt a stagnant economy, much depends on how much aid Congress will approve.
Puerto Rico was so broke to begin with that is difficult to know how much extra money will be left over after storm repairs. Even before the hurricane, the Puerto Rican power authority had estimated it would need $4 billion to upgrade aging infrastructure that was already causing frequent blackouts. Tens of millions of dollars were needed to fill overflowing landfills that make it unbearable to be outdoors in some towns.
Farmers say Maria wrecked bright spot of Puerto Rico economy
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, the strongest to hit the island in a century. At least 16 people died and nearly all 3.4 million people on the island were left without power and most without water.
The hurricane devastated agriculture, a small bright spot of economic growth in a U.S. territory mired in a decade-long recession and crushing debt.
While most of the island’s food is imported, statistics from the governor as of late 2016 show about 7,000 people working in agriculture, farm income growing and acres under cultivation up 50 percent over the past four years.
Agricultural income is divided nearly equally between crop and livestock production, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Puerto Rico in 2012.
Crop sales generate about $271 million a year led by production of plantains, vegetables and melons, nursery and greenhouse crops, fruits and coffee. Livestock sales are about $276 million led by milk production, poultry and cattle, the report said.
Complete Coverage of Puerto Rico Recovering from Hurricane Maria. Aid flows to Puerto Rico. Many still lack water and food. Shipments of food & water sent.