Hurricane relief isn’t reaching remote areas of Puerto Rico

JUDY WOODRUFF: New appeals today to do more for Puerto Rico. The island is still reeling from its worst storm in a century, and there are calls to cut red tape and get more relief on the ground quickly.

John Yang has the story.

JOHN YANG: A full week after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, patience, like so many other things, is in short supply, especially over federal disaster aid.

LAURA VASQUEZ, San Juan Resident (through interpreter): He, President Trump, has the power. If he could show his power in Puerto Rico, things would be different, very different. Many people don't trust him.

JOHN YANG: For a second straight day, President Trump defended his administration's response, saying the government is doing everything it can.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Massive amounts of food, water and supplies, by the way, are being delivered on an hourly basis. It's something that nobody has ever seen before from this country.

JOHN YANG: Today, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said the U.S. territory needs a sweeping aid package.

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ, Puerto Rico: The proud U.S. citizens that live in Puerto Rico want to work. They want to deal with the emergency. Our ask is that we treat Puerto Rico equally, that we attend to the devastation. And if we do that, we can avoid a humanitarian crisis in the United States.

JOHN YANG: At a Senate hearing, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said efforts are hampered by the condition of the Puerto Rican government.

ELAINE DUKE, Acting Secretary, Department of Homeland Security: The capacity of the Puerto Rican government is severely diminished, both because of Hurricane Irma, their prior existing financial situation, and the devastating wracked by the direct hit of Maria. We're using the DOD to now help with distribution. That generally is something that the commonwealth would do itself.

JOHN YANG: Senators of both parties pushed Duke to waive longstanding shipping restrictions, known as the Jones Act, to help get supplies to the island.

REP. JAMES LANKFORD, R-Okla.: That waiver was given to Houston, was given to Florida. It's a week to be able to get even a vessel to them. So, the longer it takes to be able to get that waiver done, then vessels can't even start getting there.

JOHN YANG: Much of the aid that has reached the island has not made it much farther than San Juan.

ANDRIAN ROMAN, San Juan Resident (through interpreter): They have not evaluated the real level of damage, and they are doing what they can, however they can. But since there isn't communication, people don't know what to do or how to do it.

JOHN YANG: With help like a U.S. Navy hospital ship the Comfort still days away, states and municipalities have sent help on their own.

Even individuals like NBA player J.J. Barea are pitching in. He borrowed the Dallas Mavericks' team plane to fly aid into his native Puerto Rico earlier this week.

For many on the island, it remains a do-it-yourself recovery, with a patchwork of desperate fixes.

We will take a closer look now at the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico.

For that, I spoke a short time ago with Camila Domonoske of NPR. She joined me via Skype from the capital, San Juan.

Camila, I know you're in San Juan now, but I understand you have been out into some of the areas around, especially into the mountains. What have you found there? What are conditions like there?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, NPR: People have absolutely no power. Most people don't have any running water. The water situation, in particular, is quite dire.

Where there is bottled water available in grocery stores, the lines are incredibly long. So, when we were up in the mountains near Cayey, near Aibonito, near Coamo, we saw people gathering water from mountain streams to drink, to cook with, to clean with, waiting in line for non-potable water that had been sitting stagnant in municipal tanks for days, and going to rivers to take baths and wash laundry.

Many of these people, their homes were completely destroyed or partially damaged in the storm. And a lot of people say they haven't seen any aid whatsoever reaching their communities.

The mayor of Coamo, I spoke with him this morning. And he said that the sum total of aid that his municipality received was five pallets of water, which is nothing compared to the need.

JOHN YANG: You say people out in the hinterlands, as it were, are seeing very little aid. How does that compare with San Juan?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE: San Juan is somewhat better off. It's still difficult for people to find resources, even here. The lines for ATMs for cash are very long. The lines for gas are very long.

I have talked to people who have driven all over the city looking for generators. I talked to a family whose generator was actually destroyed in the storm. And there is simply none to be found.

But the food availability and the water availability here in the city is better off. People can buy things when they need them, which is not the case in some of these more isolated communities.

JOHN YANG: So, is it the case that the aid is getting aid into the city, but they can't get it out beyond it? Is that the situation?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE: That's the frustration that I was hearing from people in these communities and even from the mayors who I spoke with this morning here in San Juan who are coming to petition to ask for more help, to say that they need more resources in their communities.

That said, the government of Puerto Rico will tell you the resources are getting out. It's just very difficult, very dangerous and slow.

So, conflicting reports of how much of the aid is actually being distributed out of the ports here. But there are certainly people who say they haven't seen any FEMA trucks, that they haven't seen any drop-offs or that the only help they have seen has been coming from their own local communities, neighbors helping each other and mayors serving their communities.

JOHN YANG: Do you get any sense of why that is? Is that roads are blocked, that there are no drivers, there are no trucks? What's the problem?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE: I have certainly heard reports that the problem is that there are not enough drivers.

I have heard that from a man who runs a logistic company, says that people aren't available for work. I have heard that there isn't enough diesel. And the lines for fuel are hours and hours long.

Again, the officials with the Puerto Rican government will tell you that distribution is happening, that there's not a gas shortage and that resources are getting out there. But, on the ground, it's certainly not visible.

JOHN YANG: Camila Domonoske of NPR, thanks so much for your on-the-ground reporting.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE: Yes, thank you for having me.

JOHN YANG: The Pentagon said today it's shifting its response to a provide long-term support to FEMA in Puerto Rico. But critics say the military could have done a lot more a lot earlier.

To examine that question, we are joined by Phillip Carter. He is a former Army officer who was a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University.

Mr. Carter, welcome.

We just had an interview with a reporter on the scene in Puerto Rico. She said that, as the Trump administration has been talking about how much aid has been delivered to Puerto Rico, she says a lot of that is not getting out of San Juan, it's having trouble getting out into other parts of the island, because they can't have — they can't find truck drivers.

Is that something the military could have helped with?

PHILLIP CARTER, Center for a New American Security: Absolutely.

So, Puerto Rico is a fairly large island. It's about 100 miles wide, and 40 miles deep. It's got mountains on it that are almost 5,000 feet high, and the population is not just in San Juan, but it's all over the island.

And so it's one thing to even get the supplies there. It's another to get it throughout the island to people who need it. And that's something that military units have a unique capability to do that because they're used to pushing supplies in very arduous terrain, whether it's Puerto Rico, Korea or Afghanistan.

JOHN YANG: What else could the military or the Pentagon be doing in Puerto Rico?

PHILLIP CARTER: So, Puerto Rico is unique. It's an island, in the sense that you can't rely on adjacent states or counties for mutual aid when disaster strikes.

The military got this unique deployable logistics capability. They can pick up and move by air or sea to anywhere in the world. And that's the kind of capability Puerto Rico needs now. It needs power, clean water, food, medical care, and the types of support the military provides its own troops in combat can be lifesaving in a place like Puerto Rico after a disaster like Maria.

JOHN YANG: You talked about medical care. The Pentagon announced this morning that the Comfort — the hospital ship the Comfort has been requested to get under way, but it's not leaving until — getting under way until Friday, and will take five days to get to Puerto Rico.

PHILLIP CARTER: That's right.

And in the interim, there are ground units and others that can plug that gap and also do things so that Puerto Rico's existing infrastructure can continue to function. The Pentagon said today that roughly 50 of 70 hospitals are still operating, but they need fuel for their generators, medical supplies, clean water and other supplies.

And those are things the military can help with, too.

JOHN YANG: Should the Pentagon have been asked to do more earlier in response to the hurricane?

PHILLIP CARTER: That's a hard judgment call.

FEMA and the Defense Department were stretched already by Harvey and Irma. And for them to have leaned forward into the Maria response might have been too much. That said, they certainly underdid it, and now we're seeing the effects of that judgment call.

JOHN YANG: And we have heard about the military being stretched between Afghanistan and Iraq and overseas. But are they stretched in terms of the domestic response to things like this?

PHILLIP CARTER: Yes.

And part of the problem is that a lot of the logistic units necessary for the Puerto Rico mission come from reserve components. And it's harder to call them up and deploy them than simply snap your fingers and send the Marines or the 82nd Airborne Division down to Puerto Rico.

Those units take days or weeks to mobilize and deploy. And pulling them off of where they're training or deployment cycles they're on can be also be taxing to the Pentagon.

JOHN YANG: Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security, thank you very much.

PHILLIP CARTER: Thanks, John.

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