Is the government doing enough to help Puerto Rico?

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Puerto Rico, prostrate. The U.S. territory's cries for help grew louder today, and echoed all the way to the White House.

P.J. Tobia begins our coverage.

P.J. TOBIA: The desperate plea of an island in distress painted on a rooftop. Nearly a week after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, most people don't have enough food or drinking water, and few have electricity.

Today, under pressure to do more, President Trump defended the federal recovery effort so far.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have shipped massive amounts of food and water and supplies to Puerto Rico, and we are continuing to do it on an hourly basis. But that island was hit as hard as you can hit.

P.J. TOBIA: The president announced he's expanding the aid, and will visit the territory next week.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:  I grew up in New York, so I know many people from Puerto Rico. I know many Puerto Ricans. And these are great people, and we have to help them.

P.J. TOBIA: The hard part, how to get the help there. The White House sent out Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, this afternoon.

BROCK LONG, Administrator, FEMA: We don't just drive trucks and resources on to an island. So, with the damage, you had extensive damage to the air traffic control systems, which meant sequencing life safety flights into the area, into the one airport that we could get open, San Juan, initially, is incredibly difficult.

You can't mobilize ships and just send them in, because there has to be port space, the port has to be safe. There's all types of things that we have to bring in.

P.J. TOBIA: But six days into the recovery, more than three million people are struggling from one day to the next. Grocery stores that have managed to open are rationing supplies, with no way of knowing when they might be restocked.

DAVID GUZMAN, Supermarket Manager (through interpreter): We hope to receive more merchandise soon so we can provide to all our clients. We are restricting so we can give something to everyone, to extend what we have left.

P.J. TOBIA: In this battered town in southwest Puerto Rico, volunteers have been handing out food to hard-pressed police. Medical care is also spotty. At this San Juan hospital, emergency tents are set up outside to handle the influx of people seeking help.

DR. JUAN NAZARIO, Emergency Room Doctor (through interpreter): There has been a growing number of patients coming to our emergency room, because other services aren't available to the public, as people take to the streets to perform recovery efforts and suffer accidents or other incidents.

P.J. TOBIA: The hospital's resources are being stretched to the brink. And badly needed medical procedures are delayed.

ESMERELDA RIVERA, Sister of Hospital Patient (through interpreter): My brother had an accident two days before Maria hit, and he is waiting for surgery. He injured his back and his spinal cord, though he is waiting. Because of electricity issues and other systems, they are slower.

P.J. TOBIA: Satellite images show the extent of the electricity issues, above, before the storm hit, in July, and below, an island plunged into darkness.

Many who can leave are doing just that. Planes carrying passengers from Puerto Rico arrived in New York, and family members who had waited days for any news tearfully embraced them.

They left behind a mammoth job of recovery, compounded by a long-running financial crisis. The president tweeted about the problem last night, saying the island's huge debt will slow efforts to rebuild.

That drew fire from some Democrats.

REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ, D-N.Y.: If you don't take this crisis seriously, this is going to be your Katrina. The people of Puerto Rico deserve better from our government.

P.J. TOBIA: After Mr. Trump's remarks today, Puerto Rico's governor said he believes the president does care about the island.

For now, FEMA the federal emergency management agency says it's coordinating a response by some 10,000 government workers across the Caribbean.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm P.J. Tobia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The speed and adequacy of the federal response was indeed under more scrutiny today. As you just heard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is coordinating much of it.

And for more on that, I spoke with Daniel Kaniewski, FEMA's deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness, a short time ago.

I started by asking about reports that FEMA is not doing enough.

DANIEL KANIEWSKI, Deputy Administrator, FEMA: Well, this is a disaster response, and we're very focused on the current needs of the population there, which for right now it still very much is an active response for lifesaving and life-sustaining missions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They say — what we're hearing, Mr. Kaniewski, is that it's not just matter of getting around the island, getting to the island. It's just that there's not enough help there.

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: We have nearly 10,000 federal responders on the ground there, and millions of meals and other types of commodities that are there for this lifesaving mission.

We have active rescues under way right now. We're providing commodities to those people in areas that might not be easily accessible. It's taken several days to get to some of these outlying areas. And to the extent we still can't access them, today, we have helicopters overhead dropping in supplies, including food and medicine, to make sure that these people who are in need are getting the help that they deserve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was there a delay getting ships and supplies to the island in the first place?

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: I wouldn't say there was any more delay than a situation involving a location over 1,000 miles away from the U.S. mainland.

Before the disaster, before the hurricane came in, we pre-staged those types of assets, whether it be equipment, commodities and personnel, in the area, so that there would be a fast response. Obviously, that response needed to grow over time, and demands are not shrinking.

They're increasing. So, today, we have taken very decisive action with our federal partners, including the Department of Defense, to make sure that we have a robust sustainment effort under way, that we know we're going to be here for the long haul, providing these — this assistance that frankly here in the continental U.S. might only be for a couple of days.

It's going to be for weeks, given the location of this disaster on the island.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we're hearing and seeing reporting on so many different aspects of this crisis, not just the leftover damage from the flooding, people not having homes, but we're hearing hospitals, what is it, only 11 of 69 hospitals on the island are open.

How long is it going to take to get them reopened, and what about the patients?

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: Yes, again, right now we're focused on that lifesaving, life-sustaining mission.

We have disaster medical assistance teams that have been deployed there by the Department of Health and Human Services that are providing medical services whether or not the hospital is open. These medical teams are using to working in austere environments. And they're providing that medical care to those in need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And part of that story, and I'm sure you're aware of it, are patients who rely on dialysis machines…

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … for — frankly, to save their lives. Some of them are in places where the generators have run out of diesel fuel. How are you addressing that?

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: Well, we're using a combination of approaches.

One is evacuation. We have already evacuated a number of dialysis patients and other critical-needs patients that our medical experts on the ground felt it was in their best interests to be moved out.

For those patients, we can't move or don't have the ability to move because they might be in remote areas, or it's in their best interests to stay there. So, some critical patients, you don't want the move, you want the keep there, but they need proper support. They need obviously electricity and medicine and proper medical care.

We're doing everything we can to make sure that those in need are getting that care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your main focus right now? You were saying this could take weeks, even longer, and, frankly, some people are saying months before this island is even close to getting back to a place where people are safe. What is the greatest need?

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: So, right now, our priorities are, one, people, making sure we're getting emergency responders on the ground.

Again, we have 8,000 on the ground right now, closer to 10,000 now. We also need equipment. We have to have generators. We need fuel. We need commodities like food and water. All of those are there.

In fact, as far as food goes, we have over four million meals, and water, over 6,000 liters. But just because it's there doesn't mean it's in people's hands. And I think that's an important distinction.

We have pushed as many commodities and as much support as we possibly can. Now we need to work with the local officials and our responders on the ground to get that distributed to those in need. And in some cases, they can only be reached by helicopter, and it might involve us airdropping that in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Deputy FEMA Administrator Daniel Kaniewski on the dire situation in Puerto Rico, thank you very much.

DANIEL KANIEWSKI: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's hear now from one of those very concerned about the federal response.

She is Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat from New York state. She traveled to Puerto Rico after the hurricane. And she joins us now from the U.S. Capitol.

Congresswoman Velazquez, thank you so much for talking with us.

You were quoted today as saying the response in Puerto Rico has been totally inefficient.

What did you mean?

REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ, D-N.Y.: Well, it has been six days since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.

And I was there on Friday with the governor of the state of New York. And what we saw was pure devastation and destruction, the entire island without electricity, without water. Diesel is running out. Gasoline is running out. Food is running out.

And so they are in a very dire situation. And we didn't know until now that there have been 16 deaths. Up to this weekend, there were up to 10. And there is no way for the government, the local government, to reach remote areas.

So we don't know the type of devastation that has taken place in those areas, because there is no communication, there is no transportation. People can't just drive through those roads to reach those devastated areas.

So the kind of response that has taken place from the federal government is people, the FEMA employees are there. But what I found is that we have not been able to understand the severity of the situation right now.

And so we need a top-notch three- or four-star general to oversee the interagency response. Otherwise, what we're going to be facing is a humanitarian crisis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you see of FEMA, of U.S. government assistance on the island when you were there?

REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: Well, the assistance, basically, they were assessing the area.

They were assessing the devastation. But they didn't have enough people to go to remote areas in Puerto Rico. And they were, yes, distributing some water, but the situation is such that it requires the full presence of the military.

One of the most basic needs that people, that the island has right now is the restoration of the power grid. The entire island is basically without electricity and without water. The hospitals do not have electricity.

So we have to bring the Army, with all the tools and all the equipment that it requires to be able to restore electricity in Puerto Rico and to be able to distribute water. People are going to some of the streams to get the water that they need, so the situation is really very critical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just going to say, what we just heard from FEMA's deputy administrator is that they now have more than 8,000 FEMA people on the ground.

He said it took them longer because of a distance of, he said, 1,000 miles from the mainland U.S., but he said we now have people there. We know the crisis. We are taking it very seriously. He said, we're aware of the hospital crisis, the fuel crisis.

So is it your sense that in the days since you left, that the federal government is now taking this more seriously?

REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: Well, I think so, because of the media coverage.

But let me just say, we need the presence of an aircraft carrier in Puerto Rico, stationed in Puerto Rico, like we did right after Irma with Miami. We need to have helicopters. We need to have small planes.

Those are the type of things that we need that Puerto Rico doesn't have right now. Yes, the presence of 8,000 people from FEMA is great, but they don't have the capability to reach the most remote areas. They don't have the capability and expertise to restore the power grids in Puerto Rico.

And this is why we need — when disasters strike in other foreign countries, we send the military, we send the experts from the Department of Defense. That's the kind of help that we need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I assume you have told the Trump administration this. What's the answer been?

REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: Well, I'm sending a letter. I requested for a matching fund requirement to be waived. And the president announced today that that is going to happen for 180 days.

I'm asking for a whole year. And today, we are sending — I am sending a letter with 100 colleagues of mine, Democrats, asking the president to appoint a senior military official to oversee the whole operation in Puerto Rico.

We have been asking for an extension, a waiver for the Jones Act, so that we could get help from other foreign countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of New York, thank you very much.

REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: Thank you.

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