Puerto Rico Recovery a Tale of Two Islands; Supplies Flowing, but Not to Remote Areas
Officials in Puerto Rico say the destruction from Hurricane Maria has set the island back 20 to 30 years.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz says “people are starting to die” as the island awaits further help.
Power problems are coloring every aspect of Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery efforts.
At least 47 people have been killed in the Caribbean by Hurricane Maria.
Hurricane recovery efforts are ramping up throughout the Caribbean but in some places, particularly Puerto Rico, it’s a tale of two islands.
Aid is flowing into the US territory but many of the supplies are hung up in distribution centers such as San Juan, due to difficulties in transportation. So while life is, albeit slowly, getting back to normal in places, more remote regions of the island have seen little in the way of relief, or even contact.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” 58-year-old retiree Angel Luis Rodriguez, who lives in the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa where Maria made landfall, told The Associated Press. “I’ve lost everything, and no one has shown up to see if anyone lives here.”
Jesus Argilagos told the AP the grocery store where works can only operate a few hours a day because of the power crisis. Though Argilagos lives in Manati, a town located about 30 miles down the main highway from San Juan, he said he’s seen little response from the government.
“I have seen a lot of helicopters go by. I assume those are people from FEMA,” he said. “People get pissed off because they see them going back and forth and not doing anything.”
Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s social media feeds are filled with images of supplies being delivered – “Every day we distribute food and emergency supplies to different areas of the Island,” he tweeted on Wednesday – but he admits that widespread distribution remains a problem.
“We need a quicker logistical deployment,” the governor told NPR on Tuesday. “You know, the gas and fuel issue is not a matter of how much do we have — it’s a matter of how we can distribute it.”
Rossello told NPR that many gas stations across the island were damaged he said, adding to the struggle to get them open again. The island needs drivers, he said, to deliver the fuel and gas station operators to dispense it once it gets there.
“Today in the morning we sent about a hundred trucks with fuel everywhere in the island,” he told NPR. “That should start mitigating this a little bit.”
All of that being said, conditions in the island’s capital are still not good. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz says Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis is beginning to take a deadly toll on the island.
“It’s life or death,” Cruz told CBS News Tuesday morning of the situation in the U.S. territory. “People are starting to die already. People are really dying. I’ve put them in the ambulances when they’re gasping for air.”
The storm has killed at least 18 in the U.S. territory, and 47 across the Caribbean. Cruz fears that number will rise.
A feeling of helplessness and desperation has gripped residents like Yesenia Gomez, a San Juan kitchen worker who told the Associated Press, “We’re in God’s hands.” She spent hours searching for a cell phone signal to contact her mother in the Dominican Republic.
There is “sheer pain in people’s eyes,” Cruz told the Washington Post. “They are kind of glazed. Not because of what has happened, but because of the difficulty of what will come.”
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told the Washington Post that the island is “essentially devastated. Complete destruction of the power infrastructure, severe destruction of the housing infrastructure, food and water are needed.”
"It's inhumane" what's happening at the airport in San Juan, a nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas told me – they need food, water and fans. pic.twitter.com/Fcm3QBiMVB
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) September 25, 2017
Power and communications are still down for much of the island, the Washington Post added, and local law enforcement agencies are strained and hampered in their ability to reach far-flung areas that may still need relief. As of Monday morning, officials still had no communication with nine of the island’s 78 municipalities, Rosselló said in a press conference.
Power problems are coloring every aspect of Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery efforts, from grocery stores with no way to store perishables or process transactions to homes where people running low on food are also running low on fuel to cook it.
Cell phone reception is spotty; it’s hard to contact relatives. Lack of air conditioning means sleeping through the night is nearly impossible.
“We don’t have a generator or a fan. We have nothing. The children get desperate,” Miguel Martinez, whose family has been sleeping on their roof rather than inside their stifling home, told the AP. “It’s a heat from hell.”
Temperatures have been in the high 80s and low 90s, but the high humidity in the tropics has pushed the heat index over 100 degrees for several days, according to weather.com meteorologist Linda Lam.
“Temperatures may drop slightly in the coming week, but the heat will still be oppressive, especially without access to air conditioning,” Lam said.
Esta imagen recorrió el mundo. Ejemplifica la necesidad de cientos de comunidades a las cuales estamos llegando. Puerto Rico se levantará. pic.twitter.com/mKjo9PWtLB
— Ricardo Rossello (@ricardorossello) September 27, 2017
As hospitals face dwindling supplies and only 11 of 69 facilities on the island have power, the U.S. is exploring other options to get its citizens the treatment they need.
According to the Military Times, the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort will be sent to Puerto Rico in an attempt to slow the humanitarian disaster that’s playing out. The ship has 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms, among other much-needed items, the report added.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long said Tuesday that 16 ships from the Navy and Coast Guard have already arrived in Puerto Rico, and 10 more are on the way.
“I can’t deny that the Puerto Rico of now is different from that of a week ago,” Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez told AP. “The devastation in Puerto Rico has set us back nearly 20 to 30 years.”
The U.S. Department of Energy says it is coordinating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and a team from the New York Power Authority, the AP reported.
An eight-member team from the department’s Western Area Power Authority that was deployed to Puerto Rico ahead of the storm and assisted with initial damage assessments has been redeployed to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Additional DOE responders are prepared to deploy to Puerto Rico and will do so as soon as transportation is available.
Officials have opened the island’s main port in the capital city of San Juan to allow 11 ships to bring in 1.6 million gallons of water, food, 23,000 cots and dozens of generators, according to the AP. In the upcoming days, more ships are expected to arrive.
The federal aid effort is racing to stem the crisis brewing in towns left without fresh water, fuel, electricity or phone service. Officials with FEMA, which is in charge of the relief effort, told AP they would take satellite phones to all of Puerto Rico’s towns and cities, more than half of which were cut off following Maria’s devastating crossing of the U.S. territory.
“Hysteria is starting to spread. The hospital is about to collapse. It’s at capacity,” Jose Sanchez Gonzalez, mayor of the northern town of Manati, told the AP with tears in his eyes. “We need someone to help us immediately.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo traveled to Puerto Rico to assess damage from Hurricane Maria and bring supplies and assistance, including National Guard personnel, Black Hawk helicopters, state troopers and donated supplies of water, ready-to-eat meals, canned goods, flashlights, cots, blankets and pillows, and 10 electrical generators.
The storm smashed into the U.S. territory on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 hurricane, twisting metal, snapping trees and utility poles and effectively paralyzing the island.
“Months and months and months and months are going to pass before we can recover from this,” Felix Delgado, mayor of the northern coastal city of Cataño, told the AP.
According to the AP, 1,360 of the island’s 1,600 cellphone towers were downed by Hurricane Maria and 85 percent of above-ground and underground phone and internet cables were knocked out, so making contact with family and friends on the island is limited.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Officials temporarily eased curfew restrictions on St. Croix and St. Thomas to allow residents to deal with “bodies [that] are pretty much stacking up.”
“We are going to be changing the curfew hours because the reality of life is again setting in,” Gov. Kenneth Mapp told the Virgin Islands Daily Press. “While I want to stress the importance of being safe and being careful on the roads, we’ve got natural deaths that are occurring in the territory and people are having difficulty in terms of arranging funerals.”
The curfew on St. Croix has been extended to 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on St. Thomas to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Mapp told the Daily Press while recovery efforts take center stage, he is also looking toward the island chain’s economic future by rebuilding the tourism industry.
The governor said he plans to appoint a 12-member task force which will focus on getting some the islands’ best-known visitor destinations up and running.
“Part of the new excursion is to see the disaster,” Mapp told the paper. “I feel very excited for the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Trust me, the hurricane disaster will become folks’ experience.”
The federal government announced Tuesday that it will cover the cost of debris removal and other emergency measures for the next six months in the U.S. Virgin Islands. States and territories generally cover 25 percent of the costs and the federal government covers the remaining 75 percent, the AP reported.
Officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands will work to restore power to 90 percent of the territory by Christmas, Mapp said in press conference Monday.
Commercial flights will begin operating out of the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas on Thursday, Mapp said in a press conference. The government is aiming to reopen the St. Croix airport next week, but an exact date has yet to be established.
Six airmen were deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense to work to restore communications for the islands, according to a release. They were deployed Sept. 7 and established a base of operations at the Leonard B. Francis Armory, where they set up antenna systems.
They were forced to temporarily disassemble their equipment ahead of the storm and re-establish communications after it passed.
“We had to protect our equipment in order to resume service as soon as it was over,” Air Force Airman 1st Class David Zham said in the release. “We were able to bounce right back, so our mission never stopped. It was merely put on pause.” Additional teams are being mobilized to support the region.
Communications were down across the islands and the local government was working to assess the damage, Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency emergency operations supervisor Garry Green told the New York Times.
— U.S. Virgin Islands (@usvirginislands) September 20, 2017
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said Tuesday that recovery efforts are progressing well on the island, which suffered catastrophic damage after the Category 5 hurricane slammed into the island.
Skerrit said in a daily press briefing that some gas supplies have arrived at the island and recovery crews are now turning their attention to utility and telecom concerns.
More than 50 tons of food supplies are due to arrive in the country in the next several days, the prime minister said, enough to distribute at least a few meals to every single household in Dominica.
Doctors have come from as far away as Palestine, and French authorities have brought in some medical equipment, including solar-powered french have brought in some medical equipment including solar-powered dialysis machines.
At least 27 people lost their lives on the island in the wake of the storm, the chief of police said.
At one destroyed home, 75-year-old Ashton Thomas lost his wife, Lucy, as they tried to flee the storm surge that entered their home during the hurricane’s direct hit.
“I have lived here for 27 years,” he told BBC.com, “I never thought a storm could do this. I was holding onto Lucy with one hand and the wall with the other. I managed to get her back once but she slipped away again. If I hadn’t let go, she would still be alive. How do I explain this to my daughter?”
According to Skerrit, not a single street on the island was spared the fury of Maria’s 175-mph winds, which islanders described to BBC.com as the sound of a “demented animal.”
Images showed a once tropical paradise that is home to more than 73,000 people turned into a wasteland of crushed homes and smashed vehicles. In some areas, more than 90 percent of the buildings had their roofs ripped off.
Deputy Chief Davidson Valerie told the Barbados Advocate that “many young men and ladies,” who can be called “mobs,” were seen around the city at that time, searching premises and looting.
Police Chief Daniel Carbon reported “massive looting” in several areas, but said that more than 100 officers from the surrounding islands had been brought in to help supplement the efforts of the Dominican police.
According to the Préfecture of Guadeloupe, one person was killed on the French island after being struck by a falling tree. Authorities note that the person did not heed orders to remain indoors. A second death was reported by the AP. Two people were reported missing after a boat sank near the island of La Désirade.