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As small hints of normal life return, Puerto Rico faces a colossal task to rebuild

As more troops and materials arrive in Puerto Rico, relief workers are struggling to distribute desperately-needed supplies. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump praised the federal aid response on Sunday, a day after he drew ire for attacking the mayor of San Juan when she begged for help. NewsHour Special Correspondent Monica Villamizar, who is reporting from Puerto Rico, joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Good evening and thanks for joining us.

    As more troops and materials arrive in Puerto Rico, relief workers are struggling to distribute desperately-needed supplies.

    The U.S. territory that three and a half million American citizens call home is still trying to get back to basics, 11 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

    According to the federal emergency management agency, FEMA, Telecommunications are available to a third of the island. 45 percent of residents now have drinkable running water. 60 percent of gas stations are open and providing fuel. 11 major highways are cleared of debris and open. Power has been restored to 59 hospitals

  • FEMA DIRECTOR BROCK LONG:

    Today, FEMA director Brock Long said signs of routine life are coming back, but there's a long way to go fixing roads and restoring infrastructure. The bottom line is, this is the most logistically challenging event the United States has ever seen. We have been moving and pushing as fast as the situation allows. Every day we make progress, every day we have some setbacks.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    About 9,000 people remain in more than 100 shelters on the island.

    From his golf club in New Jersey today, President Trump defended the federal response led by FEMA and the military:

    We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the fake news or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great military. All buildings now inspected.

    Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said today Mr. Trump's statements about building inspections are untrue, telling CNN:

  • GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLO:

    I'm not aware of such inspections, there are areas of Puerto Rico where we really haven't gotten contact.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    Rossello said it's important for the president to see the damage firsthand, as he is scheduled to do on Tuesday.

    Today, the mayor of Puerto Rico's capital city San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, defended herself. She reiterated: all she did was ask for more help.

  • MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ:

    Lets just talk about saving lives right now. Putting back the power grid as soon as we can. Because that has an immediate effect on our ability to recover financially.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, who arrived Thursday to oversee troop efforts, tells the NewsHour this is the worst storm damage he's ever seen.

  • GEN. JEFF BUCHANAN:

    The roads are now clear on the outside of the island, and we are slowly working our way in, but we obviously need to get all the roads cleared so we can get supplies into people who need them. SREENIVASAN: For more on the situation on the island, I'm joined now from Cidra, Puerto Rico, by "NewsHour" special correspondent Monica Villamizar.

    Let's first talk about what has happened in the past 24 hours, the relief effort has become highly politicized.

    The people that you've met there, are they feeling this tension?

  • MONICA VILLAMIZAR, PBS NEWSHOUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone):

    Absolutely. I think some people were already outraged with what they saw was a very slow federal government response in comparison with Florida and Texas. And then on top of it all, President Trump's tweets saying that Puerto Ricans want everything done, quote/unquote, for themselves, has been very, very badly well-received here.

    And there is also a broader political debate here where there is a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of blame. So, the municipalities blaming the federal government, the mayors' perspective.

    So, as it sadly happens often, the relief effort is turning very political on the ground.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    Monica, you were also able to spend a little time with the U.S. military on the ground who are trying to improve the situation there. And we posted some of your interview with Lieutenant General Buchanan, who's the military liaison to FEMA. Can you give us an idea of how the military has ramped up operations in the past couple of days?

  • VILLAMIZAR:

    General Buchanan took, that was actually the first flight he took in broad daylight. So, for the first time, he really saw from the air the scope of the devastation here and he said, it was really as bad as he had anticipated and the worst he has seen after a hurricane in all of his career.

    So, as you say, the military are definitely ramping things up here. But there definitely is a colossal path ahead of them and that includes reaching places that are still cut off and rebuilding the whole power grid, almost from scratch.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    The people you have spoken to, are they thinking about moving off of Puerto Rico, back to the U.S. mainland and perhaps not coming back?

  • VILLAMIZAR:

    Some of them are definitely trying to move to the U.S. mainland. Most of them seem to say that it is a temporary solution. They want to come back here eventually.

    But it's interesting, for our viewers that we saw sowed today, sort of the first normal life resuming in the island. We saw people jogging, some were surfing this morning, and a few restaurants are now opened and Uber drivers are starting to pick up clients in San Juan, at least.

    So, there is a lot of resilience and certainly people, some of them want to stay here and rebuild.

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