News & Politics

As Trump Visits, Puerto Ricans Say Aid Still Too Little, Too Late

Damaged infrastructure, red tape, and a slow U.S. response are all on display in San Juan

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It’s now been almost two weeks since Hurricane Maria carved a trail of destruction across Puerto Rico. Here in San Juan, the devastation is clear and evident. Trees are leafless, neighborhoods are flooded, almost all wooden buildings are partially destroyed or decimated. Even Lieutenant General Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the Department of Defense’s primary military liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called it “the worst he’s ever seen” after he toured the damage via helicopter.

But the aid response hasn’t matched the level of destruction Puerto Rico experienced. These past two weeks have seen people waiting and begging for food, water, and other urgent relief.

“We are sending tons of aid to Puerto Rico, but we have no idea where it’s going” are some of the first words Natasha Stuart tells me over the phone. “We are blind on that end.” A Belizean, Stuart flew to Florida as a volunteer to help Caring for Puerto Rico — a nonprofit organization based in Tampa — collect and deliver one million pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in the aftermath of the storm.

And Stuart is not the only one doubting her aid is reaching the right hands, or if it’s reaching them at all. Even as Washington and the Puerto Rican government report on “really good” relief efforts, as President Trump called them last week, people across Puerto Rico are still crying out that they remain in desperate need of water, food, medicine, and other needed items.

The logistical trouble faced in getting aid from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico began with the damages caused by Maria to the island’s already crumbling infrastructure. Several bridges and roads were destroyed or washed away, entire neighborhoods were flooded, the entire power grid collapsed, and 85 percent of the telecommunications network was destroyed, leaving no way for municipalities to contact anyone for aid or rescue. “It wasn’t until [three days after the hurricane] that weather conditions were safe enough to fly a helicopter and go to the street to see what happened,” Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA’s director in Puerto Rico, told El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper.

While Texas and Florida mostly received their aid from thousands of trucks sent overland from other states after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as an island, Puerto Rico needed to wait for ships to arrive. “All ports were closed for several days, airports too, and the amount brought here is what fits in cargo ships,” De La Campa added.

Once the main port of San Juan was deemed safe and navigable, cargo ships with containers full of aid were unloaded. But, to the despair of many, most of the supplies didn’t make it far from the port.

I experienced these travel limitations myself during the first few days after the storm. I couldn’t drive more than four or five miles from home, thanks to debris on the streets or flooded areas. As days passed, that range slowly increased. Still, most relief trucks coming out of San Juan port began their limited distribution within the most accessible parts of the metropolitan area — which was faring relatively better than more desperately damaged regions.

In Carolina, just east of San Juan, I saw how badly needed water was delivered to places that already had water service and remained mostly ignored, since most residents there didn’t need it. At the same time, food supplies were nowhere to be seen — or at least I never spotted a single truck with food relief before supermarkets and local shops reopened.

Reliable information on where to get aid has been scarce. Despite listening attentively to the local news on WAPA Radio — the only analog radio station in service after the storm — I didn’t know where we could get FEMA relief in Carolina until nine days after Maria hit. Thankfully, I had enough food, but not everyone was equally prepared.

Stories like these have drawn charges of a disorganized government response. FEMA and the local government took longer than expected to approve the aid the country received before releasing it for distribution. As a territory, Puerto Rico has a red tape problem that limits the way in which it receives and handles emergency aid. The island doesn’t qualify for crucial planning, management, and recovery FEMA grants, which leaves it scrambling to respond after a disaster has hit.

At the same time, with most eighteen-wheel trucks out of diesel and no means to refuel with gas stations closed, there was no set distribution network. As Air Force Colonel Michael A. Valle told the Huffington Post, truck drivers are private citizens, and most of them were spread across the island, passing the hurricane with their families.

While petroleum companies restarted their fuel distribution to gas stations in operation —about 65 percent of them as of Monday — the government made a vaguely planned call for volunteer drivers who owned a truck or large pickup.

“ ‘Sign up here, and we’ll call you if we need you,’ ” says Benjamin Torres, a volunteer driver from Trujillo Alto who is still waiting to deliver supplies. “That’s what they told me. But where are they going to call me? Our phones don’t work.”

With so much of the island’s cell service not working, I have adopted a daily routine of driving fifteen minutes to the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge connecting Carolina with San Juan. I park my car there for hours to search for a weak LTE signal on my phone. I consider myself lucky to be able to get online, and so close from home.

From the bridge, I have a panoramic view of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, and in the two or three hours I spend there daily, I see an average of four to five Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey helicopters — capable of carrying cargo to places with limited landing space, like the island’s mountainous interior — landing and taking off. Now that the military is coordinating with FEMA to distribute relief, I see military flatbeds lining up on the airport tarmac, waiting to be loaded.

But even if aid — albeit not enough — is now starting to be distributed across the island, there is a broad perception among Puerto Ricans that Washington is not doing enough to help, mainly fueled by the inaction of President Trump. It wasn’t until September 25 that Trump first tweeted about Puerto Rico’s devastation by the hurricane, while bashing it for its debt crisis. The president also initially refused to lift the Jones Act — which requires all goods traveling by water between U.S. ports to be carried on American ships, making it more difficult for Puerto Rico to get aid from foreign ships — finally waiving it a week after the devastation, and only for ten days.

Two weeks after Maria, Puerto Rican TV and radio news still convey the sadness and desperation of families, refugees, and entire communities that have yet to receive a single bottle of water. People in the central mountain municipalities like Jayuya, Ciales, and Utuado report that they are rationing the little food they have and the polluted river water they have to drink. Several families have placed homemade signs in their backyards and on their roofs, pleading for help, with the hope that an aid helicopter or sustainment brigade will notice them. Even areas in San Juan, like Ocean Park, are still flooded to this day, with little help reaching them.

At the same time, Puerto Ricans are not waiting for “everything to be done for them,” as Trump alleged. Some are reaching out to U.S.-based nonprofits and global corporations, or even creating their own grassroots movements to raise awareness and bring help, through any means possible.

Salvador Gabriel Gomez Colon, a fifteen-year-old from San Juan, created a citizen campaign called Light and Hope for Puerto Rico in hopes of providing solar lamps, mobile phone chargers, and hand-cranked washing machines for families in need in the town of Loíza, which was ravaged by both Hurricane Irma and Maria.

“Having light,” says Gomez Colon by phone from San Juan, “is a security and emotional component. People feel alone when they have no light. Having light at night and clean clothes can help someone’s emotional state.”

A similar local effort, led by Casa Pueblo, has been working since the storm to bring solar power to the municipality of Adjuntas in the central mountains. The group has also stepped forward as a center of information for residents.

“Casa Pueblo has been established for thirty years now as a community-led nonprofit in Adjuntas…but in moments of emergency, we become a center of information,” shared Fernando Samalot, a collaborator at Casa Pueblo. “We have a local analog radio signal that broadcasts information to the community, and now with Maria, our aides travel every day to San Juan to get a cell phone signal to deliver news to Puerto Ricans abroad who have trouble contacting their family, and vice versa.”

Another GoFundMe campaign, called Hand to Hand for Puerto Rico, was created by Lulu Puras and Vally Fernandez to buy prepared food and drinking water and to deliver those vital resources to all in need. The organization’s volunteers are currently preparing and delivering in person more than a thousand meals a day across the island, as well as on the islands of Vieques and Culebra.

United for Puerto Rico, an initiative brought forth by the first lady of Puerto Rico, Beatriz Rosselló, in collaboration with several private companies, has set out to provide aid and support to those affected in Puerto Rico by the passage of both Irma and Maria. The initiative has garnered the attention of local and international artists, who are donating and spreading the word to create awareness of Puerto Rico’s current struggle.

These are just a few small campaigns, but they are targeted, well-connected, and open to receive supplies. It’s possible those focused efforts could provide more effective relief to the families still waiting for the government’s help.

“There’s less bureaucracy, and action is much faster and focused, which gives us hope and confidence…that we will see results with what we donate,” says Miguel Camilo from Guaynabo about donating to grassroots campaigns on the island. But, he adds, “It’s what you’re supposed to see from the government, too.”

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