The logistical nightmare of getting backlogged aid into Puerto Rico

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: The drive to get more help to Puerto Rico is accelerating tonight. But much of what's already arrived isn't getting to the hurricane victims who need it.

John Yang begins our coverage.

JOHN YANG: Across Puerto Rico, many residents still desperately need food, fuel and drinking water.

But at the Port of San Juan, thousands of cargo containers filled with supplies sit on the docks, unable to get inland to those in need. Why is that aid so close and yet so far?

For one thing, shipping company and local officials say both truck drivers and diesel fuel are in short supply. And roads are badly damaged or blocked.

After meeting with President Trump this morning, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said they're working on it.

ELAINE DUKE, Acting Secretary, Department of Homeland Security: We have been working on yesterday principally getting distribution that last mile, as they call it. To do that, we had to remove debris. We had to restore rolls. We had to clear land — landslides across the island. And we have done things like airdrops in the meantime.

JOHN YANG: Cell phone service is also hampered by the lack of diesel fuel generators.

MAN (through interpreter): The cell signal is really bad. In the area I live in, which is Morovis, this a real problem. Lots of people are looking for places trying to get a signal to speak to family members outside Puerto Rico and in other places across the island.

JOHN YANG: Today, Mr. Trump directed Duke to temporarily lift longstanding shipping restrictions, known as the Jones Act, in hopes of speeding deliveries of fuel and other supplies.

ELAINE DUKE: I did sign a Jones Act waiver this morning that came in yesterday afternoon from the governor of Puerto Rico that is based on national security needs. The president encouraged us, as he has done throughout this hurricane response and the other two also, to lean forward.

JOHN YANG: Critics like Democratic Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of New York said the federal response has been inexcusably slow.

REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ, D-N.Y.: This has to happen soon, not weeks from now, not in late October. This needs to be an immediate priority for Speaker Ryan and the Republican leadership. We need to see action as early as next week.

JOHN YANG: House Speaker Paul Ryan said FEMA's disaster relief account will get another $6.7 billion by the end of the week. Meanwhile, the Pentagon tapped Army Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan to lead relief efforts.

One challenge he will confront, eliminating a backlog on the mainland. At air bases in Georgia and South Carolina, utility crews and other contractors have been waiting days for military flights to Puerto Rico.

MONTY MILLER, Electrician: We are anxious to go, but we are just waiting. Hurrying up and wait. We are trying to get there. We are just — we're anxious to go.

JOHN YANG: Eager to get to work to try relieve the suffering of so many fellow Americans.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We get a closer look at what it's like on the ground in Puerto Rico now®MD+IT¯®MD-IT¯.

Carmen Yulin Cruz is the mayor of the capital city, San Juan.

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of San Juan, thank you very much for joining us.

Tell us what the situation is there right now.

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, San Juan: It is a humanitarian crisis.

People are desperate for food, for water, for gas, for diesel in order to keep equipment that is necessary for people that are plugged into a respirator or an oxygen tank in order to survive. Our dialysis and cancer patients haven't been able to get most of their treatments on time, which is, of course, life-threatening.

And even though there is aid here, there is reported to be about 3,000 containers of much-needed medical equipment or medical materials, any type of things that you need, we're talking about primary necessities, you know, just a glass of water. It doesn't matter if it is cold. It just matters that you can drink it.

I have been getting calls — and this is from mayors from towns outside of the metropolitan area — telling me that, you know, their people are drinking out of creeks, and they're washing their clothes and they're washing themselves in the same creeks that they are drinking and eating and bathing.

And so this is a real concern, that the aftermath will be even worse because of the health conditions that get created.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what we have been reading is — today is that you do, as you just said, have containers there at the port in San Juan, but you don't have the ability to get a lot of this material to people. What is the holdup?

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ: I don't understand what is the holdup is. I do have to tell you that I did get a call this morning from Mr. Bossert at the White House.

He did send John Ravins (ph), the FEMA regional coordinator that is in charge. And they have deputized two people from FEMA into San Juan. They are working very closely with a team of our people and a team of logistics experts that the mayor of New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and (INAUDIBLE) have deployed to San Juan.

So, we will be in a position in the next 24 to 48 hours to start distributing whatever we have already gotten. Some wonderful mayors, like the mayors of Miami Beach, Levine, that came personally yesterday to bring 7,000 pounds of stuff that we need, the mayor of Chicago and the people of the Puerto Rican human rights group in Chicago, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Congressman Asencio in Florida.

The mayor of Boston has also reached out to see how they can help. So mayors are about helping people, because we know we're at the forefront of people's needs. And we're — pretty much, you can call us the first line of defense whenever it comes to situations like this.

And we have not ever seen anything like this in our lifetime in Puerto Rico. We also need to reinvent and rethink how we are going to rebuild and what our goals are and our priorities when we do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, just very quickly here at the end, you do have enough people to get this material to where it is needed?

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ: Yes, ma'am, we do have enough people. And, you know, where there is a will, there is a way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, I know we all are wishing you the very best at this very difficult time. Thank you.

CARMEN YULIN CRUZ: Thank you very much.

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