SAN JUAN — San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz made her message clear on her black shirt that read: “Help Us, We Are Dying.”
“People are drinking out of creeks here in San Juan,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Friday night. “You have people in buildings and they’re becoming caged in their own buildings — old people, retired people that don’t have any electricity.”
Ten days after Hurricane Maria rammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, the US commonwealth is dealing with a humanitarian crisis as millions remain without electricity and water, and limited access to gas and cash. At least 16 people have died as a result of the storm, the government has said.
Already stricken with logistics, communications and supply issues, Puerto Rico is expected to see heavy rain this weekend that could further impede recovery efforts for its 3.4 million residents.
Some areas still remain flooded and now, Puerto Rico is under a flash flood watch until late Sunday because of the predicted rain, which could be between 2 and 4 inches each day, the National Weather Service said. Low-lying areas are at risk for flooding as water pumps aren’t functioning at full capacity.
• Military troops and disaster relief workers are improving supply chains, and “you’ll see more presence, more equipment, in support of the municipalities” over the next few days, Federal Emergency Management Agency official Alejandro de la Campa told reporters Friday.
• About 3,000 crates of private-sector goods — such as food meant for grocery stores — have been sitting idle at the Port of San Juan, in part because not all drivers have reported back to work and also because of other logistical challenges, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday.
The government will call private owners and ask whether they can pick up the goods. If they cannot, the government will require owners to sell the goods to the Puerto Rican government so that it can deliver them to the people, he said. Rosselló’s count of the idle crates was lower than that of two shipping industry officials.
None of the idle containers carried aid sent by FEMA; that aid was continually distributed, FEMA officials said.
“On the one hand, we see 3,000 containers that are there with medicine, supplies, everything that we need. But on the other hand, the wheels are not churning fast enough,” Cruz said Friday.
• The government-mandated evening curfew instituted to prevent looting will now start at 9 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., Rosselló said Friday. That gives citizens — many of whom are spending hours in line at banks, fuel stations and groceries — two extra hours to get tasks done. The curfews still end at 5 a.m. Truck drivers carrying essentials are exempt.
San Juan’s mayor: This is a good story?
San Juan’s mayor Cruz pushed back against acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke who said earlier that the government’s response in Puerto Rico “is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people.”
“It’s not a good story when people are dying, starving, thirsty, when people can’t go back to work,” Cruz told Anderson Cooper Friday night. “I don’t know who in their right mind would say this is a good story to tell.”
Duke, who traveled to Puerto Rico on Friday, said she was referring to how well everyone is working together. “The end of my statement about good news was, it was good news that the people of Puerto Rico, the many public servants of the US and the government of Puerto Rico are working together and … it’s nice to see communities together trying to recover and support each other.”
Cruz said there’s a disconnect between the federal government plan and what’s happening on the ground.
“If you register for FEMA on the Internet, you’re OK. Well, we don’t have any Internet. We barely have phones. We don’t have power anywhere… this is not standard operating procedure. Everything has just gone away so you have to improvise,” she said.
Cruz said she and her family are staying at the Coliseum, along with more than 600 people seeking shelter there, sleeping in cots and eating the same food as everyone else after her house flooded.
Homes and streets still flooded
About 45 miles from San Juan in the town of Florida, fish swim in the streets that are still flooded after the hurricane.
Although the town is up in the hills and nowhere near the coast, the storm backed up a nearby creek causing the flooding and forcing families from their homes.
Despite the total collapse of utilities, residents there are cleaning up and clearing debris from roads.
Officials from FEMA appeared in town Friday and residents peppered them with questions: When will supplies come? How long will it take?
“FEMA’s not going to forget about this community,” Caroline Cuddy from FEMA, told CNN’s Ivan Watson. “FEMA’s not going to forget about the needs that they have and we’re going to work with our people back in our field office in San Juan about what we’re going to do.”
Struggling for basics
For many in Puerto Rico, trying to get the basics like fuel has become a grueling, all-day affair.
About 675 of the island’s roughly 1,110 gas stations were working as of Friday evening, according to the Puerto Rican government’s website for information on the recovery.
In Loíza, residents waited for more than 10 hours for gas. The town’s deputy mayor, Luis Escobar summed it up as a chain that has been broken: “No fuel, no work, no money.”
Without gas or transport, people can’t get to work. Without work, there is no money to buy necessities.
After spending an entire day waiting for fuel, the following days are spent trying to get food and other basic supplies, residents say.
There’s also a cash scarcity. Many of Puerto Rico’s businesses, supermarkets and gas stations will accept only cash because credit card systems are down.
At least half of all bank branches remain shuttered, in part because they can’t get enough armored trucks with gas, or truck drivers, to deliver the cash safely. Roughly 90 open bank branches are limiting the amount people can withdraw per day, the governor said Friday, to ensure everyone can get some cash.
Despite difficulties, Cruz expressed her faith in the American people: “I know what the US heart is all about. You are intelligent, daring people, so I just don’t understand why things have become so complicated and the logistics are so insurmountable.”