Puerto Ricans who lost everything begin rebuilding as they wait for aid

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Trump is planning to visit Puerto Rico tomorrow. It will be nearly two weeks since the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico's governor said today that supplies of fuel and other needs are picking up.

But as our special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports many residents don't see much progress yet, and are struggling with the very basics.

KEVIN MONTALBAN, Home Destroyed in Hurricane: The hurricane started. It ripped up from here first.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR, Special Correspondent: Kevin Montalban is just one of thousands of Puerto Ricans who lost everything when Hurricane Maria swept across this island 13 days ago. He hunkered down and tried to wait out the storm with his 12-year-old son in this room.

KEVIN MONTALBAN: We were right here, my son and I, when it happened. And it happened just in the wink of an eye. When we heard the whoosh, we jumped over here. And we stood like this. And I'm like, stay back, stay back.

And I have him here cupped in here. Cupped in here. Cupped in here. And we stood in here. He hid here. He was hiding there with his feet out. And I was standing right there like blocking him.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: Was he scared? Terrified?

KEVIN MONTALBAN: He was terrified.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: Almost two weeks later, his community in central Puerto Rico still looks like this. The road has caved in. Power and phone service nonexistent.

Neighbors remain in wait of any assistance. His uncle, Ceferino Gonzalez, said that we were the first outsiders he'd seen there since the storm.

CEFERINO GONZALEZ, Uncle of Kevin Montalban (through interpreter): No one has come to help us. That's why I'm so mad. If we hadn't been here, my daughter and granddaughter would be homeless. I had to clear all the trees and debris myself. No one helped.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: We have been driving around Puerto Rico, and it's incredible to see that a paradise island was reduced to this. Everything you see is dead trees, downed power lines, and endless queues to get gas.

It will be an enormous challenge to rebuild.

Over the weekend, we joined Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan in his first aerial tour of the damage. He was named on Thursday to lead all military efforts in response to Maria, an appointment that many welcomed, but said had come a week too late.

Why the whole week that elapsed? I mean, this is part of the U.S.

LT. GEN. JEFFREY BUCHANAN, U.S. Army North: Yes. So, it is, absolutely.

We have had elements here on the ground since the 4th of September. And they were here at first for Irma. Sometimes, we don't know what's going to happen until the storm actually hits. And this is the worst I have ever seen.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: This is the worst you have ever seen?

LT. GEN. JEFFREY BUCHANAN: And so — it is.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: On the island's East coast, Buchanan receives a briefing from Marines already deployed there in a hangar without power or cell phone reception.

2ND. LT. SAM STEPHENSON, U.S. Marine Corps: What's great about, you know, the Marine Corps being here and working with the local population is that these are Americans. We're normally a war-fighting organization. So we have all this heavy equipment that normally are abroad doing engineering-type efforts. But now we can bring those to a U.S. territory and help local Americans.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: General Buchanan says the biggest challenges now are electricity, fuel and transportation.

LT. GEN. JEFFREY BUCHANAN: Some things, especially, I think, the electrical grid, are going to take a long time. I'm not an electrician.

But I know it's going to take a long time. And, right now, where we're having the biggest problems are in the interior of the island. And it's because of roads. We obviously need to get all the roads cleared, so we can get supplies to the people who desperately need them.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: And he is avoiding getting caught up in the political storm or commenting on the president's tweets criticizing the San Juan mayor and local Puerto Ricans.

LT. GEN. JEFFREY BUCHANAN: I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a member of the blue party. I'm not a member of the green party. I'm a soldier. And I'm here to help people.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: Many organizations have come here to help. But the task remains daunting.

Meanwhile, millions of Puerto Ricans remain without water. And food is limited. Basic services, like reliable power and phone service, are nonexistent.

Kevin Montalban had not talked to his mother in 13 days. She is 70-years-old and lives in Boston, Massachusetts. He is now living in a school that was turned into a shelter and is run by local authorities.

It is far enough inland where the military has not yet arrived, and they are still waiting on power, water, phone service, and trash collection.

On a hilltop in his neighborhood, we lend him our satellite phone to call his mother for the first time and let her know that he is still alive.

KEVIN MONTALBAN: I miss you, mommy.

(through interpreter): I miss you. We're OK, yes. Yes.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: In total, the call lasts less than five minutes.

KEVIN MONTALBAN: She said that she hasn't slept since Maria and that she's just been worried. She thought that I was dead. She's been calling news stations. She said she called CBS yesterday. She called NBC Boston. And she's been calling everybody, and nobody could get in touch with me.

But she's happy. She's happy. And she said she's going to pray right now.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: But, for now, he remains sheltered in the school, with neighbors like Lydia Martinez and Reynaldo Torres, a couple from the countryside.

REYNALDO TORRES ORTIZ, Puerto Rico Resident (through interpreter): Oh, my God. all of Puerto Rico is destroyed. With all the trees and cables that fell, it's a disaster.

LYDIA MARTINEZ MALDONADO, Puerto Rico Resident (through interpreter): The avocados, the mangoes, every crop is gone. But we have to keep faith that God will provide. Birds will plant the seeds.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: Since the storm, Montalban now lives with little more than his son's asthma medicine, a few changes of clothes, and a prayer.

KEVIN MONTALBAN: The first thing I grabbed, besides my son, was the Bible.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: There are thousands of others across this island who lost everything.

Back in his community, neighbors were already back at work, fixing their homes.

KEVIN MONTALBAN: We will get out of this. Puerto Ricans always do. We will. We will build again, even if we don't get no help. As you hear, people are building again.

MONICA VILLAMIZAR: But as it stands, the road to recovery will be a long one.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Monica Villamizar in Cidra, Puerto Rico.

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