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Desperation in Puerto Rico fuels frustration with federal response

September 29, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Long lines are a stark fact of life for the people of Puerto Rico, with little assistance from the outside world reaching small towns nine days after Hurricane Maria. But the U.S. military and Puerto Rican National Guard units are trying to get aid out beyond the capital, and help get hospitals up and running. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports on the frustrations on the island.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re covering two big stories this evening.

Tom Price’s stint as secretary of health and human services is over, after revelations of costly private airplane travel. We will get to that in a few minutes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Puerto Rico is still waiting for help.

We begin with the latest from the stricken island.

Special correspondent Monica Villamizar is there.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR, Special Correspondent: For the people of Puerto Rico, lines are now a fact of life. They wait for hours to buy supplies, to withdraw money from banks, and even to wash their clothes.

William De Lara was in line for gas this afternoon in San Juan.

WILLIAM DE LARA, San Juan Resident: We’re in the heat, and we suffer every day. The military can build a city in one day in the desert. Why can’t they do the same here?

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: But the U.S. military and Puerto Rican National Guard units are trying to reach beyond San Juan, to towns that have gone nine days with little or no assistance.

Others are desperate to get themselves or their loved ones off the island. Hundreds waited late yesterday in the capital to board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship to the U.S. mainland for free.

LARA BROWN, Mother of Evacuees (through interpreter): I’m sending my children to Miami so they can be more comfortable because they don’t have electricity here. Sometimes, they have water. Sometimes, they don’t.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: The U.S. Navy is now on the ground working to get hospitals up and running; 34 dialysis centers and 36 hospitals are currently limping along on generators.

In Washington, the acting U.S. homeland security secretary, Elaine Duke, said yesterday that the federal response has been a good-news story.

But, today, San Juan’s mayor disagreed.

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, San Juan: I will do what I never thought I was going to do. I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: After traveling to Puerto Rico today, Secretary Duke had a new assessment.

ELAINE DUKE, Acting Secretary, Department of Homeland Security: The president and I will not be fully satisfied, however, until every Puerto Rican is back home, the power is back on, clean water is freely available, schools and hospitals are fully open, and the Puerto Rican economy is working.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: But frustrations on the island are also aimed at Governor Ricardo Rossello’s government. The mayor of San German says his southwestern town of 35,000 is still without power, and hasn’t received any water trucks.

He tweeted today that: “The governor is giving the message that everything is resolved, and it is not true.”

In his own tweets today, President Trump argued his administration is fully engaged with the crisis in Puerto Rico. But he also raised the question of how it will all be paid for.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Ultimately, the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort, 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.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: The president is expected to visit Puerto Rico himself next Tuesday.

But residents here in San Juan and in all of Puerto Rico are bracing for a long recovery — Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Monica, based on what you have seen, what do people still not have? What do they need?

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: They need a lot of supplies. And they don’t have pretty much anything.

It’s hard to explain how dire the situation is. If you stop to think anything that anyone one needs in modern life, they are lacking. They don’t have water. They don’t have food. But there’s no power supply. So, ATMs don’t work, so they can’t get cash.

There is no electricity, no phone reception, and the list goes on and on. Things here are quite bad, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we have spent a lot of time talking about how hard it is getting supplies to where they need to be. Is that what you are still seeing on the ground today?

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: What we have seen on the ground, the distribution of aid has not been equal at all.

So, here in San Juan, the capital, there is some aid. However, if you travel outside the capital, there are rural areas that are very remote that haven’t been reached so far. And this is a week after the storm, and we understand people there haven’t had anything so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why aren’t those supplies getting where they need to be fast enough?

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: It’s really hard to understand how — what a colossal task it is on the ground to get things distributed to those who need it and to prioritize, because the infrastructure of the whole country was completely decimated.

It’s very hard to get things from point A to point B. And also there are so many agencies involved, both public and private, it’s proven very hard to communicate and coordinate between all of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what’s been the reaction there to the appointment of this three-star Army general to oversee the work being done there?

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: We have heard that citizens are welcoming the fact that the U.S. military is sort of going to take more control of all the logistics on the ground. They think that can make a real difference.

They think they have been treated as sort of second-class citizens. They say, why are we part of the United States, and it’s a week after this disaster, are we not seeing things being reestablished? Of course, things are much more complex.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Monica, you mentioned earlier that people are talking about a kind of new normal there. What did you mean by that?

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: We understand that if something is not done urgently — and this is the Red Cross who told us — people are going to probably die in the rural areas, because they are surviving out of basically water they are finding in springs or small creeks.

It’s a really dire situation over there. And we were staying, for example, in the east, where the hurricane came through. There’s a very big mountain called El Yunque and people think it’s safe there because, before, it had sort of protected them from the hurricanes.

We saw all that natural forest has been completely decimated. And this is what the island looks like. There is no vegetation. There is no lushness. It’s certainly going to take a very long time for Puerto Rico to look like it did before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Monica Villamizar, reporting for us from Puerto Rico, thank you.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: Thank you, Judy.

Editor’s Note: Additional footage was provided by the U.S. Navy.

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