Much more work must be done to meet Puerto Rico’s critical humanitarian needs after Hurricane Maria, the US territory’s top official said Saturday, while also emphasizing that the federal government is fulfilling his every request — striking a conciliatory tone minutes after President Donald Trump lambasted a mayor who criticized the US response.
“We need to do a lot more in order for us to get out of the emergency,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in San Juan. “But the other thing that’s also true is that the administration has answered and has complied with our petitions in an expedited manner.”
Eleven days after Hurricane Maria rammed Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, millions in the US commonwealth remain without regular electricity service, and many have limited access to gas, cash and running water. At least 16 people died there as a result of the storm, the government has said.
Earlier Saturday, Trump — who plans to visit the island Tuesday — used Twitter to criticize San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and the “leadership ability” of some in Puerto Rico who “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” Cruz earlier had criticized the distribution of aid and said the feds needed to do more.
Rosselló, while updating reporters on recovery efforts, tread carefully on the back-and-forth.
“I don’t feel that (Trump’s) message was sent in general,” Rosselló said. “I am committed to collaborating with everybody. This is a point where we can’t look at small differences. We can’t establish differences based on politics.”
Rosselló acknowledged many of the island’s 3.4 million citizens could leave for good, and more people could die, if conditions don’t improve soon.
With most of the power transmission grid destroyed, more than 95% of customers are without regular electricity service. Only 10.7% of the island’s cell phone towers are working. People are waiting in hours in line at gas stations and thinly supplied groceries. Some communities are isolated by phone outages and blocked and damaged roads.
“My invitation … is to recognize what the important issue is: Helping the people of Puerto Rico. Everything else is fodder to the side,” he said.
Trump: Some leaders ‘want everything to be done for them’
Trump’s Twitter attack on Cruz came after a day after she stepped up criticism of the federal response, saying aid wasn’t being distributed efficiently.
Wearing a black shirt that read, “Help Us, We Are Dying,” she appeared Friday night on CNN to say the situation was desperate.
“People are drinking out of creeks here in San Juan,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “You have people in buildings, and they’re becoming caged in their own buildings — old people, retired people that don’t have any electricity.”
“We’re dying here. We truly are dying here. I keep saying it: SOS. If anyone can hear us; Mr. Trump can hear us, let’s just get it over with and get the ball rolling,” she said.
On Saturday morning, Trump responded.
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” the President tweeted.
“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job,” his tweets read.
Cruz said she and her family are staying at the Coliseum in San Juan, along with more than 600 people. They’re sleeping in cots and eating the same food as everyone else after their house flooded.
She also pushed back against acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, who said this week that the government’s response in Puerto Rico “is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people.”
“It’s not a good story when people are dying, starving, thirsty, when people can’t go back to work,” Cruz told Cooper on Friday night. “I don’t know who in their right mind would say this is a good story to tell.”
Duke, who traveled Friday to Puerto Rico, said she was referring to how well everyone is working together.
“The end of my statement about good news was, it was good news that the people of Puerto Rico, the many public servants of the US and the government of Puerto Rico are working together, and … it’s nice to see communities together trying to recover and support each other,” she said.
Struggling for basics
For many in Puerto Rico, trying to get the basics, like fuel, has become a grueling, all-day affair.
More than 710 of the island’s roughly 1,110 gas stations were working as of Saturday morning, according to the Puerto Rican government’s website for information on the recovery.
But stations often are closing in the evening, ahead of a government-mandated 9 p.m. curfew designed to limit looting. And lines in the day are long.
In Loíza, residents waited for more than 10 hours Frida for gas. The town’s deputy mayor, Luis Escobar, summed it up as a broken chain. “No fuel, no work, no money.”
Without gas or transport, people can’t get to their jobs. Without work, there is no money to buy necessities.
After spending an entire day waiting for fuel, the next days are spent trying to get food and other basic supplies, residents say.
There’s also a cash scarcity. Many of Puerto Rico’s businesses, supermarkets and gas stations will accept only cash because credit card systems are down.
At least half of all bank branches remain shuttered, in part because they can’t get enough armored trucks with gas, or truck drivers, to deliver cash safely. Roughly 90 open bank branches are limiting the amount people can withdraw per day, the governor said Friday, to ensure everyone can get some cash.
All phone landlines working; cell service largely down
Recovery efforts this weekend may be hampered by rain.
Puerto Rico is under a flash flood watch until late Sunday, as between 2 and 4 inches of rain could fall, the National Weather Service said. Low-lying areas are at risk for flooding as drainage pumps aren’t functioning at full capacity.
“(The rain will be) a problem — a lot of the rivers and streams in Puerto Rico have yet to recede to normal levels,” CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar said Saturday.
Rosselló and FEMA officials gave the following updates on recovery efforts Saturday:
• All phone landlines are now working, but cell service still is mostly down. Only 10.7% of cell towers were operational Saturday morning.
• The government still is in the process of buying a few thousand crates of private-sector goods — such as food meant for grocery stores — that have been sitting idle at the Port of San Juan. Companies that can’t access the port and deliver the goods will be forced to sell the items to the commonwealth, which will distribute them, Rosselló said.
• About 10,000 people are in roughly 230 shelters.
• About half of the island’s customers have regular water service.
• Millions of meals and liters of water are being sent from ports to 11 distribution points throughout the island, where local governments can pick them up for distribution. In some cases, FEMA or other agencies are delivering directly to isolated communities.
• Fifty-one of the island’s 69 hospitals are open. Nine of the open hospitals have regular electricity service; the rest are powered by generators.
Homes and streets still flooded
About 45 miles from San Juan, in the town of Florida, fish swim in the streets that are still flooded after the hurricane.
Though the town is nowhere near the coast, the storm backed up a nearby creek, causing the flooding and forcing families from their homes.
Despite the total collapse of utilities, residents are cleaning up and clearing debris from roads.
Officials from FEMA arrived in town Friday, and residents peppered them with questions: When will supplies come? How long will it take?
“FEMA’s not going to forget about this community,” the agency’s Caroline Cuddy told CNN’s Ivan Watson. “FEMA’s not going to forget about the needs that they have, and we’re going to work with our people back in our field office in San Juan about what we’re going to do.”