Devastated Puerto Rico needs unprecedented aid, says governor

After almost a week since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, millions of residents are without water, fuel or power, and cut off from the world with no way to communicate with family abroad. John Yang speaks with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald about the extent of the damage and the island’s need for federal aid.

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    And now to Puerto Rico and the disaster that Hurricane Maria left behind. The U.S. territory is a vast scene of wreckage, and there are new calls to do more.

    John Yang has that story.


    Across Puerto Rico, there is heart-wrenching devastation. Most of the U.S. territory's three-and-a-half million people can only wait, wait for water, wait for power, wait for fuel.

  • YARILIN COLON, Puerto Rico Resident (through interpreter):

    We don't have communications. I have no telephone. We have nothing. We do not have supplies. In my house, we do not have water. There is no gas. The lines are long.


    In San Juan, lines wrapped around gas stations. Others flocked to a point near a cell tower, damaged but still functioning, hoping for a signal strong enough to reach loved ones.

  • ADMIN REBOZO, Puerto Rico Resident (through interpreter):

    I have been trying for days to get in touch with my family in the United States, and just today I found out that there is a signal here. So I came with my mother to call my father, who is there, and let him know that we are OK.


    Elsewhere, people waited to fill any container they could carry with precious water. Some in the Central Mountains resorted to the only source they could, a stream that was once off-limits.

  • CARLOS LOPEZ, Puerto Rico Resident (through interpreter):

    We didn't know we could get water because it was forbidden in the past, but it's open now to the public to be able to get some.


    Still more lines at San Juan's international airport, hoping to get a flight off the island.

  • RAMON CUEVAS, Puerto Rico Resident (through interpreter):

    Since we are without communications, we don't have phones, Internet. We have nothing. We came in person to see what the status of the airport is, and what the possibility is of taking any flight.


    Others are bent on returning home. Many who fled Toa Baja on the northern coast have begun to return, only to find the ruins that the hurricane left behind.

  • CARMEN BERRERO, Puerto Rico Resident (through interpreter):

    Every time I get here to my house, I cry, because it's not easy to start again, start, clean, pick up, pull and see that there is nothing. I do not have anything, but I will start again with the help of God. I really will.


    Almost a week after Maria hit, some isolated towns still have not been heard from at all. It's in those places, cut off from the rest of the island and the world, where some fear the worst damage and loss of life.

    And there is still danger elsewhere: Officials said a dam on the Guajataca River remained in danger of failing. About 70,000 people could be in danger and have been urged to evacuate. Much of Puerto Rico's economy is in shambles; 80 percent of its agricultural crops were wiped out, a calamity for a territory that was in fiscal crisis even before Maria.

    National Guard planes are delivering sorely need supplies, but there are calls for much more.

    Today, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi urged President Trump to deploy the military for search-and-rescue, maintaining order and providing transportation. House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed Puerto Ricans will have what they need. And to encourage private giving, the five living former presidents expanded their one-America appeal to include Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

    For more on the situation in Puerto Rico, I spoke with the territory's governor, Ricardo Rossello.

    Governor Rossello, thanks for joining us.

    Let me first by asking you, what's the latest on the Guajataca Dam? Is that still in that danger, or has that stabilized?


    Well, right now, we were unclear.

    We sent a group of engineers to assess the situation. We're going to get information in the next two hours. However, we're still on emergency protocol, making sure people are out of harm's way. We are assessing mitigation plans to make sure that we can stop the damage that has already occurred within the dam.

    So things are still in flux. But, of course, we would rather err on the side of caution.


    Governor, you say you have sent teams out to the dam. How hard is it to get information, to reach various parts of the island?


    It's very difficult in terms of telecom. We only have 27 percent of telecom network working right now, and it's mostly in the metropolitan area.

    However, we have established certain teams that are going to the different municipalities. We have made sure that the mayors or their representatives come over here to our center of operations, so that we can communicate what the needs are and we can start being effective.

    We send a crew of runners every day to every municipality, so we can get information back and forth. So it's a little bit rudimentary, but it's working for us at this moment, and hopefully we will have a mitigation strategy within the next 24 to 48 hours.


    Governor, are you getting all the aid you need or getting it fast enough from the states?


    First of all, we are very grateful for the administration. They have responded quickly.

    The president has been very attentive to the situation, personally calling me several times. FEMA and the FEMA director have been here in Puerto Rico twice. As a matter of fact, they were here with us today, making sure that all the resources in FEMA were working in conjunction with the central government.

    We have been working together. We have been getting results. The magnitude of this catastrophe is enormous. This is going to take a lot of help, a lot of collaboration. So, my call is to congressmen and congresswomen to take action quickly and conclusively with an aid package for Puerto Rico.

    We are in the midst of potentially having a humanitarian crisis here in Puerto Rico which would translate to a humanitarian crisis in the United States. So, I call upon Congress to take action immediately. You know, Puerto Ricans are proud U.S. citizens.

    We have shown as much when Irma went through our region. It impacted us, but that didn't stop us from going to the aid of other almost 4,000 U.S. citizens that were stranded in some of the islands. We gave them food, shelter. We make them out of harm's way and we have them go back to their homes.

    Now it is time for, you know, the U.S. citizens in the mainland to help Puerto Rico as well. And because we are a territory, we need to be equal, because we're U.S. citizens, as would happen in any other state. The aftermath of this could be health emergencies, severe problems with infrastructure, and, of course, massive exodus of people of Puerto Rico, which would cause a tremendous demographic shift in Puerto Rico and in the United States.


    You say it has to be consistent with the aid that went to Harvey and Irma.

    Do you worry that, because that was Texas and Florida, that Puerto Rico might be overlooked or in some sense sort of forgotten in the wake of all of that?


    We can't be treated differently. You can't build half a house.

    You need to have all of the resources to restructure and rebuild Puerto Rico properly. And let me just say this. Puerto Rico's situation is very unique. FEMA, you know, recognizes as much. So, it's a situation where we essentially had two Category 5, 4 or 5, hurricanes go through Puerto Rico in a matter of two weeks.

    This is unprecedented. And, as such, the response should be unprecedented as well.


    Governor Ricardo Rossello of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, thank you very much for your time. And we wish you the best.


    Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. And we will be fighting to build a much better Puerto Rico.


    As Hurricane Maria bore down on Puerto Rico last week, Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei was on one of the last flights in. Yesterday, she was on one of the first flights out.

    And she joins us now from Miami.

    Patricia, what — tell us what you saw, what it was like down there in the days after Maria hit.

  • PATRICIA MAZZEI, Miami Herald:

    What was really impressive was the extent of the damage.

    I mean, it wasn't just centered in one place. Everywhere you went, everybody had a story about the horrific storm and just how it had wreaked havoc on their property, on their loved ones. I mean, city after city was flooded, had huge mud come into people's homes, had all the roofs torn out.

    It was unrelenting in seeing the extent of the catastrophe.


    How widely were you able to get out and around the island? How far were you able to get from San Juan?


    Well, we were concerned about running out of gas because there was a gas shortage, as you know, after the storm. So, we were able to get east of San Juan and west of San Juan, so we're talking maybe 60 miles, 70 miles each way, because we didn't want to get stranded anywhere.

    And it was different going in each direction. To the east, there was a lot of flooding that we saw, a lot of sand coming on to the streets, just beach erosion. And to the west, we went towards that dam that has the crack in it that's threatening some towns and threatening their water supply. And there is where we saw the mud and where we saw people who were completely isolated, because that's where the eye went out of the storm, and they had yet to reach even their own government officials for help.


    How were food supplies holding up as you traveled around? What did you see?


    We saw a few little grocery stores open up here and there, but they were selling the supplies that they had had since before the storm. No one was getting resupplied.

    And people were starting to run out of their own stocks of water and things like that. There was one bakery in the town of Loiza that we went to that would open everyday at 7:00 a.m. and make all the bread it could for the day. And there was a line out the door.

    And then, as soon as they ran out, that was it. That was all they had. We even saw in San Juan that at least one hotel where foreign and locals were staying, they didn't have any more water bottles either. They ran out of plantains, because they were just — there wasn't new supplies coming in to any of these places yet.


    Did you see signs of relief aid?


    We saw San Juan starting to get on its feet, because we saw debris removal, big tractors, that sort of thing, on the road, out of the city as well. We didn't see utility trucks anywhere.

    We didn't see any distributions of food or water. The relief that was present already in the shelters, those folks were trying to get together cots and things like that, but they were putting lists of supplies that they needed together, and it was the bare essentials, toothbrushes, toothpastes, female hygiene products, toilet paper. They were running out of all of it.


    We have less than a minute left, but I want you to tell me a little bit about the scene at the Miami Airport when you arrived yesterday evening.


    Oh, wow.

    Well, we saw family where a young girl had a big Puerto Rican flag that she unfurled when she saw the first people come out of — off the flight. There were TV news crews waiting to speak to people who were telling them about, you know, arriving in the U.S.

    And even on the plane, as soon as we landed, people were turning on their phones and getting to call their relatives for the first time, and the woman behind me started weeping because she hadn't been able to reach her family until she landed in Miami. They didn't know she was here.


    Patricia Mazzei of The Miami Herald, thank you very much for sharing your stories with us.


    My pleasure.

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