Puerto Rico says hurricane devastation getting worse; U.S. says recovery effort progressing

Reuters, AP

The mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital on Friday lashed out at comments by a top Trump administration official who said the federal effort to help the U.S. island territory recover after Hurricane Maria is “a good news story.”

“Damn it, this is not a good news story,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told CNN angrily on Friday. “This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story.”

Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, head of the parent department for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said on Thursday she was satisfied with the disaster response so far. “I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane,” Duke said.

Maria, the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, killed at least 16 people on the island, according to the official death toll. More than 30 deaths have been attributed to the storm across the Caribbean.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello has called the widespread heavy damage to Puerto Rico’s homes, roads and infrastructure unprecedented, and has praised the U.S. government’s relief efforts.

As most of the island’s 3.4 million residents faced a 10th day without power and struggled to find fuel and clean water, Cruz bristled at Duke’s comment. “This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water,” Cruz said on CNN. “It is not good news when people are dying.”

While thousands of Puerto Ricans were finally getting water and food rations Friday as an aid bottleneck began to ease, many remained cut off from the basic necessities of life and were desperate for power, communications and other trappings of normal life in the aftermath of 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 had begun to reach even some remote parts of Puerto Rico. 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 and the economy was still crippled from the effects of the storm, which swept across the 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.”

Appearing in a later interview wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Help us. We are dying,” Cruz said she was hopeful the situation would improve, but added, “People can’t fathom what it is to have children drinking from creeks, to have people in nursing homes without oxygen.”

The mayor of San German, a town of about 35,000 in the southwestern corner of the island, echoed Cruz’s harsh words. “The governor is giving a message that everything is resolved, and it is not true,” Mayor Isidro Negron Irizarry said in Spanish on Twitter. “There is no functional operations structure. We are alone.”

Duke traveled to Puerto Rico on Friday, joining Rossello for an aerial tour of the island. She told reporters she was proud of the recovery work being done but said she and President Donald Trump would not be satisfied until the territory was fully functional. She took no questions from reporters and did not specifically address her “good news” comment or Cruz’s response.

Trump, who is scheduled to visit in the coming week, addressed the situation on Friday before a speech in Washington about his new tax plan. “The electrical grid and other infrastructure were already in very, very poor shape,” he said. “And now virtually everything has been wiped out, and we will have to really start all over again. We’re literally starting from scratch.”

Col. James DeLapp, the Army Corps of Engineers commander for Puerto Rico, told CNN that rebuilding the island’s crippled power grid is a massive undertaking.

“The closest thing we’ve had is when the Army Corps led the effort to restore Iraq’s electricity in the early stages of the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004,” he said.

Further complicating recovery is a financial crisis marked by Puerto Rico’s record bankruptcy filing in May and the weight of $72 billion in outstanding debt.

“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort, which will end up being one of the biggest ever, will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” Trump said.

In Old San Juan, the capital’s historic colonial section, customers lined up on the sidewalk outside Casa Cortes ChocoBar cafe for sandwiches and coffee being handed out from a small window between plywood planks clinging to the exterior wall.

“We’re one of the few restaurants that have a generator,” said Daniela Santini, 19, who works there. “Most businesses don’t have electricity, only some have water. We’re one of the lucky ones.”

Nancy Rivera, 59, a San Juan resident who suffers from diabetes, was forced to go without her medication by a lack of electricity. “I stopped using the insulin in my refrigerator. It’s too warm,” she said.

Ground transportation, hampered by fuel shortages and streets blocked with fallen vegetation and utility wires, remained a major challenge.

“You can’t see the roads,” said Alvaro Tueba, a regional catastrophe coordinator for property insurer Chubb Ltd, who said adjusters face difficulties driving about the island.

More troops, medical supplies and vehicles were on the way to the island, but it will be some time before the U.S. territory is back on its feet, the senior U.S. general appointed to lead military relief operations said on Friday.

“We’re certainly bringing in more,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan told CNN on Friday, a day after he was appointed by the Pentagon.

Asked how long it would take for Puerto Rico to recover, Buchanan gave a slight sigh and said, “This is a very, very long duration.”

The hardships on Puerto Rico have largely overshadowed similar struggles faced by the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, slammed by two major hurricanes — Irma and Maria — in the span of a month.

Most of St. Croix, the largest of the three major islands in that territory, remained without electricity and cellular communications nine days after Maria struck. Shelters were still packed and long lines stretched around emergency supply centers.

At one such facility, anguished residents pleaded for more than the single sheets of plastic tarp that National Guard troops were handing out.

The insurance industry was tallying the mounting costs of Maria, with one modeling firm estimating that claims could total as much as $85 billion.

Rossello told CNN on Friday the federal government has responded to his requests and that he was in regular contact with FEMA’s director, though more needed to be done. “We do have severe logistical limitations. It has been enhancing, but it’s still nowhere near where it needs to be,” Rossello said.

In San Juan, Mayor Cruz asked for more immediate action. “Mr. Trump, we appreciate everything you’re doing, and we know it can be done faster,” she said on CNN. “Let’s just put a crew out there with enough equipment and let’s just push things out of the way and move.”