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A Steady Death March – a Place that Was a Garden of Eden – Puerto Rico Lives in Darkness

September 23, 2017
 I lived in Puerto Rico and studied the history and came to regard it as home. One of the fabled national leaders for whom the 11th of January is celebrated as a holiday Eugenio Maria de Hostos – said that, “it was an injustice that Puerto Rico was transferred from one nation to another without having ruled itself.” He was referring to the colonial rule of Spain passing to the U.S. The associated liberated state that was founded by Jose Munoz Marin was supposed to benefit the islands and people. It was felt that Puerto Rico would have openly accepted membership as a state in the U.S. had it been offered. What was offered promoted Lolita Lebron and Albizu Campos to push for the sovereignty of the island as Hostos challenged the government in the early years of the appropriation of the vast talents and resources of the people, not to mention its strategic military position. It pains me to remember the quality of life of a bondadoso pueblo who have always been proud of their independence and cultural heritage settle for colonialism. EVERY plebiscite that ever was had there was defeated. Unfortunately, that is a part of the ugly legacy that was perpetrated not by the current government but by everyone of the WHITE settlers who rode up the hill and San Juan and who dared undermine the freedom of the indigenous people.
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When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, ‘everything collapsed simultaneously’

Arelis Hernández, Dan Lamothe, Joel Achenbach
A damaged house is visible among stripped trees near Caguas, Puerto Rico.© Carlos Barria/Reuters A damaged house is visible among stripped trees near Caguas, Puerto Rico.SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — When things went bad during Hurricane Maria, they went bad all at once, across this entire island. Suddenly, everything was dysfunctional, including the power grid, the cellphone towers, the banking system. Even the disaster managers, the professionals in charge of responding to hurricanes, were forced to evacuate the buildings where they had sheltered during the powerful storm.

They shifted operations to the convention center here, an improvised maneuver that was just one of the reasons the government struggled to meet the challenges Maria presented. They were in the dark. The island’s residents were in the dark. No one knew the extent of what had happened — or what was happening — for days.

“Everything collapsed,” said Héctor Pesquera, the Puerto Rico governor’s director of safety and public protection. “Everything collapsed simultaneously.”


Nearly two weeks after Maria caused a historic catastrophe and thrust Puerto Rico into a humanitarian crisis, President Trump on Tuesday is scheduled to make his first visit to the island since the storm hit on Sept. 20.

Trump is expected to meet with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has repeatedly expressed appreciation for federal support from Washington. It is unclear whether Trump will encounter San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has sharply criticized the federal effort, saying that Puerto Ricans are dying while the nation’s bureaucracy stumbles.

Trump has tweeted attacks on Cruz’s leadership, and the president has repeatedly said that stories highlighting the slow response to the crisis are fake news.

That view was echoed, if in a more subtle way, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s administrator on Monday after he flew to the island and, as he told reporters, saw signs of civic vibrancy in San Juan. William “Brock” Long said he managed to get a cellphone signal when he was 20 minutes outside the capital and heading to a remote area.

“As we were going down the road, I saw numerous fuel trucks with security, I saw numerous water trucks with security,” he said. “I saw a lot of resilient Puerto Ricans. I saw neighbors helping neighbors. I didn’t see anybody in a life-threatening situation at all.”

The statutory requirements and protocols of disaster management are complex. The Defense Department has authority to send some of its assets where it sees fit, and in the case of Hurricane Maria did not initially deploy as many ships, sailors and soldiers as it could have. But the Defense Department is supposed to support, and follow the guidance of, FEMA. FEMA, in turn, is supposed to support the local and state (and in this case, territory) government.

Political sensitivities enter the calculation — with governors invariably wanting to show command and control — as was the case with Rosselló, who on Thursday took pains to say that the government of Puerto Rico is fully in charge of the Maria disaster response.

“The last thing a political leader wants to admit is that the problem is beyond their control,” said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who played a critical role in the federal responses to Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “There has to be a frank, unvarnished conversation about the scope of the problem and how to deal with it. It is politically hard but operationally essential.”

Cars in Vega Alta pass power-line poles downed by Hurricane Maria.© Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images Cars in Vega Alta pass power-line poles downed by Hurricane Maria.Even before Maria, Puerto Rico had been hobbling along economically amid a financial crisis and at the same time convulsing politically. Now comes the longer-term question of whether the island can rebuild its economy and stave off wholesale flight of its residents to the mainland.

Rosselló, trying to steer attention toward the broader issues facing Puerto Rico, said on Sunday: “I invite you to reflect on why Puerto Rico is in the current state of disadvantage and inequality. It’s not something that happened just a few months or few weeks before this storm. It is a condition that has happened for more than a century in Puerto Rico. . . . I invite you to reflect on the reality that even after the storm hit Puerto Rico, even when it was evident that it was a disaster in the United States, only half of our U.S. citizens knew that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.”

Roselló and other officials have not denied that the government struggled to provide food, water, medicine and fuel in the wake of Maria, but they have pointed to the challenges of being an island 1,000 miles from the mainland, as well as the communication breakdowns they experienced.

The scale of the disaster became clear only when mayors from across the island arrived in San Juan on Sept. 23, three days after the storm, for a meeting at the convention center at which they delivered dire reports in person. The U.S. government did not ramp up all of its capabilities until six days had passed. Last Tuesday, the Pentagon dispatched an Army one-star general to the island and then quickly elevated that command by sending in a three-star general.

“Every day we get more and more situational awareness,” said John Rabin, the acting administrator for the FEMA division that oversees Puerto Rico. “As soon as we recognized there was a need for more resources and more capability, we ordered up that proverbial bigger boat.”

Asked if the response was slow, he went silent for a few beats.

“It’s not that it was ‘slow’; it’s ‘complex,’ is the way I would describe it,” Rabin said.

He cited one example of the way the response is evolving: FEMA and the Puerto Rico emergency managers sent relief supplies to 11 locations around the island. But the lack of communication meant that many people were not showing up for the supplies. Officials since have been using military helicopters to carry aid to rural locations.

The difficulty in responding to Maria has revealed how unique each disaster is — and how resistant to a one-size-fits-all approach. Hurricane Harvey, for example, created a flooding disaster in Houston and other cities in southern Texas, and thousands of people had to be rescued from their homes, often by civilians using private boats.

For Maria, numerous Coast Guard and FEMA urban-search-and-rescue teams were on hand or arrived quickly. But it soon became clear that what people needed most were life-sustaining provisions — including water, food and diesel fuel for generators — that the search-and-rescue teams didn’t have.

Senior officials in the Pentagon debated sending additional assistance in the first few days after the storm, including deploying a 1,000-bed hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, under their own authority. They decided instead to fill requests from the Puerto Rico government to send a couple of 50-bed hospital units that could be set up on shore.

Long visited Puerto Rico last Monday, and afterward the Pentagon’s effort changed. The next day Long appeared at the White House and announced the deployment of the Comfort.

Several U.S. military officials with knowledge of Puerto Rico operations said afterward that they hadn’t known about the ship’s deployment. The Comfort was not yet ready to sail.

Military officials said they have filled every request they have received in a timely fashion. The Navy had two amphibious combat ships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Oak Hill, already in the region in response to Hurricane Irma, and after maneuvering to avoid Maria they sailed to Puerto Rico with a complement of Marines and sailors aboard. The Coast Guard had at least nine ships off the Puerto Rico coast shortly after the storm.

The unpredictable path of the storm played a role in the decision to send some ships, notably the USS Iwo Jima and USS New York, to ports on the mainland rather than to Puerto Rico in advance of Maria, the officials said. When pressed, they acknowledged that the ships could have steered clear of the storm while at sea and responded to the storm sooner.

As of Monday, there were 10 Army helicopters, 17 Navy and Marine Corps helicopters, and 10 National Guard helicopters involved in the Maria response, with an additional 12 Army Black Hawk helicopters and four MV-22 Osprey arriving soon, the Pentagon said.

Lamothe and Achenbach reported from Washington.

Trapped in the mountains, Puerto Ricans don’t see help, or a way out

Samantha Schmidt, Arelis R. Hernández

UTUADO, PUERTO RICO — The day Hurricane Maria swiped through these mountains, the loose, wet dirt started to tumble and roll. It broke through the gate and through the door. It moved with ferocity and determination. It covered and filled everything.“It looked like chocolate,” said Ferdinand Ramos, a 63-year-old retired police officer whose home was directly in the path of massive landslides. The viscous mud crashed into his living room and kitchen, leaving a shin-high sludge.

Then, for almost nine days, Ramos and Norma Jimenez and members of their extended family were trapped on their property. No one came to help. Their home on the remote outskirts of this town 60 miles southwest of San Juan became a prison.


Even after they cleaned up inside, they had no way to leave — the mud, broken trees and chunks of debris had piled up outside. On Thursday — eight days after Maria had passed — a municipal utility worker cleared their street.

The family had almost run out of drinking water. Their isolated community of Caonillas had received no aid from the local or federal government, residents said. And they had no way to make the perilous trek to town; the winding roads had been obliterated and six of the family’s cars had been stored in a garage that collapsed, crushing five of the vehicles and sending a sixth sliding down the mountainside and into a river.

So their daughter decided to try hitchhiking to town, desperate for bottled water for her month-old premature baby, Diana. As Jimenez, 62, waited for her daughter to return, she rocked six-pound Diana in her arms, kissing the infant’s forehead.

“She left this morning and still hasn’t come back,” Jimenez said.

An unknown number of families are still trapped in this part of Utuado, much of which is inaccessible nearly two weeks after the storm. From the air it is clear why: Mountaintop houses are surrounded by landslides, shredded structures are scattered down mountain slopes, and residents in some areas could be seen waving frantically for help as a helicopter passed.

Some of the homes are so remote and in such rugged terrain that getting to them requires extraordinary effort by helicopter or all-terrain vehicle. Pilots can’t land in many nearby spots, making it unclear how authorities will reach people before the road infrastructure is repaired, which could take months. Residents are cut off from civilization, in some places at least a four-hour walk to the nearest store.

If aid and essential resources have been slow to reach Puerto Rico as a whole, getting help to isolated communities such as Utuado has been taking even longer. In these rural neighborhoods, tucked between mountain ranges and nestled along murky river beds, there is no telecommunication. Some residents recounted coming across Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, none carrying aid — only search-and-rescue teams seeking assessments.

These are the U.S. citizens for whom the mayor of San Juan has been crying, the people who say they have been forgotten and betrayed by their government in Washington. President Trump has been declaring the federal government’s role in Puerto Rico a success, but the people here see things very differently as they struggle to survive.

“In the towns I represent, there are people who have no water,” said an emotional Sen. Nelson Cruz Santiago, who represents the island’s southern region. “In Utuado, there is an area where the bridge was washed out and people are screaming from the other side for help. We can hear them, we can see them, but we can’t help them.”

At least three people died in mudslides in Utuado after Maria hit on Sept. 20. Many residents of the Caonillas neighborhood worry that if it rains again, the mountains and roads could buckle even more and come after them again.

Hector Ruiz, a utility worker hired by the Utuado municipality to clear its roads, is often the first outsider to encounter stranded families. With a large excavator on Friday, he cut through a mountain that had fallen over Highway 140.

He estimated that it will take at least one more month to make the entire highway in Utuado accessible. Ruiz said he came across a community of about 50 homes surrounded by a broken road on one side and a lake on the other.

“They can’t get out either way,” he said.

Ana Rosa Cruz escaped from one of those isolated communities on Friday and was walking through Caonillas with her nephew. She emerged from a road covered with tall mounds of broken trees and mud. She was out of breath and exasperated, her shins covered in scratches and gashes from the trek.

Cruz, 58, had walked for about two hours just to reach an accessible road. She was carrying empty gasoline containers and had about an hour to go to reach her destination. Since the storm, Cruz had been staying at her mother’s home, which had been cut off by landslides. About nine families live there, but dozens more live even farther into the area, she said, miles away from anything.

Her mother, who has circulation problems, only had enough fuel to use her generator for two more days. She and her neighbors are forced to drink “water from the mountain or from the sky,” she said.

“If she gets sick, we can’t get her out,” Cruz said of her mother, noting that she has seen helicopters but none of them have stopped. “We just wave goodbye, because there’s nothing else we can do.”

For Lisandra Torres, 43, who lives down the road from Jimenez and Ramos, her family’s sedan is too low to the ground to make it up the muddy, rugged route — only a four-wheel-drive SUV would even have a chance. Torres walked for three hours to get to the center of Utuado on Thursday, seeking food and water. Her extended family is almost out of cash, so Torres tried to pick up their benefit checks from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — known as WIC — to purchase food and diapers for her grandchildren. But the WIC offices in their town were closed.

“If my babies get sick, I need to buy medication,” said her daughter, Lizbeth Coraliza, 24.

A relative tried driving her sister, Angelica Coraliza, 26, to a minimart Friday in a different sedan. That car got stuck four times because of mud and road damage, and other drivers had to help. When they finally made it to the store, they found that it was sold out of water.

The Coralizas, like many other families in the Utuado area, can reach mountain springs. The cloudy water works for bathing and cleaning, but many said they wouldn’t risk drinking it and definitely wouldn’t give it to infants.

Jimenez’s daughter might not have a choice.

The young mother has been struggling to breast-feed her newborn, probably because she is stressed and not getting enough to eat, Jimenez said. If they can’t find bottled water, the family will have to start boiling water from the mountain to add to the baby’s formula.

And the shortage of food is increasingly grim. Fuljencio Guzman and his 12-year-old son, Kelvin, lost their home, its wooden structure devastated. They are staying next door at Guzman’s mother’s house.

A pantry showed the family’s only remaining nourishment: one can of beans, a few cans of tomatoes, saltine crackers and a few potatoes.

Even if they could reach the nearest grocery store, they have no cash to buy food, and no banks or cash machines in town are functioning. The Guzmans are limiting themselves to one meal a day, the father said. About 1 p.m. Friday, Kelvin ate some Chef Boyardee and rice — probably his only meal until Saturday.

Another resident, Migdalia Guzman, said she thinks the U.S. government doesn’t realize there are communities up here, away from the cities and the television cameras.

“I think they think no one is here,” Migdalia Guzman said. “But there are a lot of people here.”

The storm loosened massive boulders in the mountain slope directly above Migdalia Guzman’s home, where she lives with her children. She worries that additional rain could cause another catastrophe.

“We would all die,” she said.

When she saw a local government official around town on Thursday, she was told that she should move to a different home because of the risk.

“We don’t know where to go,” she said.

On Friday afternoon, thunder clapped and dark clouds started rolling in over the mountains. It began to rain.

Hernandez reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.


White House statements on Puerto Rico clash with ground reports

In San Lorenzo, a bridge destroyed by flash floods has been replaced for now by a cable.
© CNN In San Lorenzo, a bridge destroyed by flash floods has been replaced for now by a cable. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke faced harsh backlash after saying the Trump administration’s recovery effort in Puerto Rico is a “good news story.”


“Damn it, this is not a good news story,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz responded. “This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story.”

Since Hurricane Maria slammed into the US territory as a Category 4 hurricane earlier this month, much of the island has been devastated — leaving millions of Americans without electricity and water, and limited access to gas and other vital supplies.

Duke’s comments weren’t the first time the White House’s statements about the recovery effort contradicted ground reports. This week, federal officials and locals clashed on such issues as medical care facilities, aid shipments and the availability of cash.

Critics say the White House has been slow to respond and is portraying the situation in Puerto Rico as better than it really is. Here’s a snapshot of what the White House is saying compared to what people there are seeing and experiencing.

Hospitals and nursing homes

White House: In Puerto Rico, 44 of 69 hospitals were “fully operational” as of Thursday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

By Thursdaynight, White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said that 51 hospitals had met the standard of being able to “see, treat and admit” patients.

However, he clarified that the three-pronged standard for hospitals included many using emergency diesel fuel, which he admitted was “not necessarily an ideal condition.”

Ground Reports: Because power and communication lines still remain out for much of the island, hospitals rely on diesel fuel — already in short supply — and have trouble contacting and coordinating patient care.

CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta saw those hospitals’ struggles firsthand. At a shelter an hour outside of San Juan, a woman named Josefina Alvarez, who suffers from diabetes, was in a dire situation. She had an infection and no insulin, water or food.

People hoping to buy gas line up in Rio Hondo, Puerto Rico.

© HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/AFP/Getty Images People hoping to buy gas line up in Rio Hondo, Puerto Rico. No ambulance could take her to a hospital, so Gupta and his team volunteered to drive her to a nearby clinic.“There are probably thousands of patients who are in similar shelters with no power, no water, no medications, no way out. There are probably thousands more who are still in their homes and haven’t even been able to get to a shelter,” he said. “She’s just one example of what’s happening here.”Speaking on CNN’s The Situation Room on Thursday, Gupta said that many hospitals listed as operational had no satellite phones, no access to medications, and were unable to admit patients.

“We’re seeing diesel fuel being promised for a few hours at a time as opposed to anything that’s going to be more sustainable for them. And as you might imagine, it’s very hard to run a hospital that way,” he said. “It’s hard to take care of patients if you say, ‘Look, we have six hours of fuel left. We’re not sure if we’ll get more fuel after that.'”

Because available diesel fuel was prioritized for hospitals, nursing homes had major issues as well, Mayor Cruz said.

“Most of our nursing homes have people that have an inability to move, so they’re stuck in the 14th floor, they have no water, they have no food, they — most of them are insulin-dependent,” she said.

Insulin-dependent patients are “going crazy for ice” to keep their medical supplies cold, Cruz said, while other patients haven’t had their scheduled dialysis or chemotherapy in days.

Delivering food and water

White House: President Donald Trump has tweeted several times over the past few days that food and water are “on way,” “on site” or “delivered” to Puerto Rico.

The Federal Aviation Administration supported the restoration of services to all eight commercial airports in Puerto Rico, FEMA said on Friday. In addition, five of six FEMA-priority seaports are open or open with restrictions, the Department of Defense said Thursday.

Ground Reports: Initially, FEMA was limited in its ability to deliver aid because of closed or damaged ports.

“We were limited by a damaged air traffic control system, we were limited by airports that weren’t operational,” FEMA administrator Brock Long said Thursday. “We were limited by ports that weren’t operational. Now as those are coming back up, we are increasing capacity.”

In recent days, food, water and other supplies have reached the ports. But because of damaged infrastructure — impassable roads, non-operational seaports and airports, and a lack of communication lines — getting those supplies to people in need has proved much more difficult.

“We’re getting commodities to Puerto Rico,” said Long. “The question is, how do we get it to the last mile?”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said delivering aid from ports to communities is the main problem officials are facing.

“They have got to get that aid moving to the right places. To do that, you need to restore roads, a bare minimum of power, you need a bare minimum of communication. You need a logistical chain,” Rubio said.

“There’s a lot of food coming in, a lot of water, a lot of medical assistance. But if that medical assistance is sitting at the port, it’s theoretically in Puerto Rico, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to get it from the port to the people who need it. And that’s the problem.”

Delivering aid to some areas will be more difficult than to others. In San Lorenzo, a 45-minute-drive from San Juan, a bridge over a rushing river was destroyed by flash floods. Now residents cross the waters while holding onto a scavenged cable.

John Rabin, acting regional administrator of FEMA Region II, said the agency has established 11 distribution points at various parts of the island. They have delivered around 1.1 million liters of water and almost a million meals.

Mayor Cruz, of San Juan, said these distribution centers “need to be much closer and need to provide a lot more.”

She drove 30 miles from San Juan to a distribution center to pick up three pallets of water and food.

“Wouldn’t it be more logical in terms of logistical support to get 21 pallets of water and 21 pallets of food, whatever you’re going to give me, give me for a week’s worth?” she said.

Making cash available

White House: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that the federal government was acting quickly to meet Puerto Rico’s cash shortage. “For the last two days, we’ve been very involved in figuring out how we can get major amounts of cash to Puerto Rico. I can tell you we made two giant cash shipments,” Mnuchin said.

Ground Reports: With electricity still widely out, many merchants are not accepting credit cards, making a cash infusion increasingly necessary for residents who need to purchase food, medicine, gas and other supplies.

At least half of the bank branches in Puerto Rico are still not open, according to the Association of Banks of Puerto Rico. Stand-alone ATMs — from the airport to wealthy neighborhoods — are out of cash.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that 90 bank branches are now open throughout the island, though CNN reports they are operating under severe restrictions.

Many people are waiting in lines for hours to access ATMs with no guarantee they’ll be able to withdraw cash.

Tom Tarbox waited an hour in line at an ATM near the beach in San Juan on Wednesday in sweltering heat. The line stretched around the FirstBank. Customers used umbrellas to shield themselves from the beating sun. It wasn’t even his bank, but it had cash and that’s all that mattered.

Tarbox, a retiree from Connecticut who has lived in San Juan for 20 years, said he was worried most about running out of diesel fuel for his generator. The long queues for food, gas and cash convince him that the federal government’s response has been too little, too late.

“The feeling is that the response of the administration has been too slow in getting equipment and things down here, including cash,” Tarbox said, with another 15 people in line ahead of him. “There is sort of a hoarding, panic mentality.”

CNN’s Rafael Romo, Patrick Gillespie and Boris Sanchez contributed to this report.

Florida, other states brace for Puerto Rico exodus

People sit on both sides of a destroyed bridge that crossed over the San Lorenzo de Morovis river, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Morovis, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. A week since the passing of Maria many are still waiting for help from anyone from the federal or Puerto Rican government. But the scope of the devastation is so broad, and the relief effort so concentrated in San Juan, that many people from outside the capital say they have received little to no help. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)© Gerald Herbert / Associated Press People sit on both sides of a destroyed bridge that crossed over the San Lorenzo de Morovis river, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Morovis, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. A week since the passing of Maria many are still waiting for help from anyone from the federal or Puerto Rican government. But the scope of the devastation is so broad, and the relief effort so concentrated in San Juan, that many people from outside the capital say they have received little to no help. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)It has been a trying week for Erika Rodriguez, who continues to reach out to family members in Puerto Rico struggling in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

With much of the island without power, and short of fuel and clean water, Rodriguez wants her family to relocate to the U.S. mainland while authorities in Puerto Rico try to rebuild an already fragile infrastructure struck by one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. But she’s having a lot of trouble trying to get to the island to retrieve them.


“We’re trying to find something but there are no flights,” said Rodriguez of Satellite Beach, Fla. “We’re calling around. One of my friends was trying to leave from Orlando and at the last minute the flight was canceled. They’re also saying that they might be able to get you in but there are no guarantees that (they) can get you back,” Rodriguez said.

In the established Puerto Rican enclaves of cities around the country, people like Rodriguez are making room for relatives whose lives on the island have been washed away. So, too, are city officials bracing for the influx of evacuees desperate to flee Puerto Rico for shelter with friends and family.

It’s too early to know how many of the island’s 3.4 million residents will try to leave or just how ready communities in the mainland U.S. are to absorb them. If migration patterns hold, much of the influx will be to the South.

A Pew Research Center study shows that as the island was in the early throes of its current economic crisis and bankruptcy, about 48% people leaving Puerto Rico moved to the South, including 31% who relocated to Florida.

More than a million people of Puerto Rican descent live and work in Orlando, home of Walt Disney World. Monse Vargas, the president of the non-profit La Casa de Puerto Rico, said preparations must be made for temporary housing, job training and other social services should families there take in evacuees.

“There are people who are trying to come. They have family in Central Florida or they’re coming here to buy supplies to take back. But there is a lot of desperation. Some people lost their houses and want to get out, even though right now it is extremely difficult,” Vargas said.

Jackie Cruz of Port St. Lucie, Fla., said she is more than willing to bring all of her family — including her mother, aunt, sister, her husband’s children, grandchildren and others — to the mainland.

“We’re all trying to get together with my sister in Jersey to figure out how we can bring them here. They won’t leave anyone behind,” Cruz said. “We’re trying to convince them being here is better than being where they are. They don’t know anything outside of Puerto Rico.”

Officials in Florida and other states were readying resources. Florida will assist with “whatever is needed, both in Puerto Rico and in Florida,” said Kerri Wyland, a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Scott has asked the state’s public colleges and universities to allow students displaced by the storm in Puerto Rico to pay tuition at an in-state rate.

New Jersey, which sent a task force and resources to Florida, South Carolina and Texas in response to hurricanes earlier this month, is preparing to send aid to Puerto Rico as soon as the Federal Emergency Management Agency tells them what’s needed.

Meanwhile, the situation in Puerto Rico, where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty rate, grows more dire by the day. While there is no shortage of people who want to fly in with supplies, the logistics are daunting. There are roads that remain impassible because of the damage. Some communities on the island are so remote they are only accessible by helicopter. Loved ones living stateside worry, and feel helpless.

Janice Rivera of Rockaway, New Jersey, said her brother and sister live in Cedra, located in the middle of the island. She said one of her nephews lost the zinc roof of his home. She is worried about the scarcity of food; her family sometimes relies on the avocados, bananas and plantains that fall from the trees. Rivera can’t even send cash through the bank because her siblings can’t access the money.

“They say it will take two months for power to come back, and we worry about what they are going to eat,’’ she said. “What are they going to do, and if they are flooded where are they going to live?”

At the Orlando International Airport, there were two passenger flights — one arriving and one departing for Puerto Rico — scheduled Wednesday. Normally, there are about 26 flights a day between Orlando International and Puerto Rico, said airport spokesman Rod Johnson.

“We do have eight relief flights going out, but that’s it,” he said.

Still, some families have been successful in taking transportation matters into their own hands.

Denisse Quinones, 45 and a Cape Coral, Fla., hairdresser for 15 years, drove to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday to pick up her mother and grandmother. They will join her in a two-bedroom house along with her three children for the next three to six months.

“I booked them an airplane while the hurricane was going on,” Quinones said.

“I just kept calling and calling until finally it happened. But not everyone has that discipline or luxury of being able to do that. I do know others who are coming. They are not retired. They live paycheck to paycheck. They already are struggling. They are trying to get out. They probably will be here. That’s going to be an impact for the community. They’re going to need jobs and assistance and housing. How are we going to accommodate all of that?” Quinones said. “This is a humanitarian crisis.”

Contributing: George Andreassi II, David Dorsey and Monsy Alvarado.

Challenges face those sent to help in Puerto Rico
A look inside one of the hardest-hit towns on west coast of Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The wait for food and supplies is agonizing eight days after Hurricane Maria.


The Trump administration — under growing pressure to speed things up — temporarily waived the Jones Act on Thursday — allowing more foreign ships to deliver aid.

Puerto Rico recovery effort likely to take years and cost billions

And three-star Army Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, commander of the United States Army North, was chosen to direct the military’s response and will arrive later Thursday evening.

CBS News’ Omar Villafranca saw first-hand the challenges facing those sent in to help.

A platoon of U.S. Marines is cutting a path in the El Yunque National Forest, trying to get to a communication tower back up and running.  

More than a week after Maria hit, Marines are still clearing roads; fallen trees and mudslides crippled the island’s road network and stalled the relief effort.

Lt. Col. Marcus Mainz described the situation to Villafranca.

“You see us getting to critical infrastructure such as FAA towers,” Lt. Mainz said. “As soon as we can get those up the more life-saving aid can come in.”

Some Marines were among the first on the ground after Maria ravaged the island. They were launched by air and by boat from the U.S. Navy’s USS Kearsarge.

Villafranca, who was aboard the stowage deck of the USS Kearsarge, reports that there are 20 helicopters around Puerto Rico. They are no longer doing search and rescue missions and now are in full relief mode delivering vital supplies: generators, food, water, even tarps — so people can get their lives back to normal.

Because many on the island don’t have running water, Marines are taking salt water from the harbor and filtering it into drinkable water.

Others are canvassing hospitals.

“We have fuel trucks sitting out there in what we call a ‘quick reaction force’ with Marines who are ready to go, map out which hospitals they have to go to and we will get there before the lights go out and people die,” Lt. Mainz said.

Gen. Buchanan will link up with FEMA and local officials to help coordinate relief efforts. His top priority is getting supplies out of the port and to the people that need it.Many parts of Puerto Rico are cut off, with communications down. CBS News’ David Begnaud traveled to Aguadilla, which was one of the hardest-hit towns on the western tip of Puerto Rico.

Watch: A look inside one of the hardest-hit towns on west coast of Puerto Rico

On the way there, Begnaud passed a military convoy — one of the first signs that help was finally on the way.

At least 1,500 homes in the area no longer have roofs following Maria.

Puerto Ricans waited for fuel for the eighth day in a row — the line stretched for miles.

Many crowded a local grocery store, but it only has food for another two weeks, Begnaud reports.

Aguiadilla Mayor Carlos Mendez told Begnaud he needs more help.

“Of course, I do. I need more help. I need FEMA. I need the Corp. of Engineers. I need you listening to me,” Mendez said. “But we’re going to get out of this one, I am sure that we will.”

“We have to keep hope alive,” he added. “It’s a mistake not to get up again. When you go down, you have to get up and that is exactly what we are doing.”

‘Why can’t we get out of here?’ Damaged airports in Puerto Rico and other islands are slow to recover
Getting off storm-ravaged Caribbean islands has been an exercise in frustration, often culminating in despair, rage and another night in a hot airport with no air conditioning and the steady boil of angry voices.

Town’s desperate plea for help in Puerto Rico goes viral, gets answered

By Andrea Diaz, CNN
© Angelina Ruiz-Lambides/Cayo Santiago Biological Field Station This plea for help read “S.O.S we need water/food.”Help finally arrived to a desperate town in Puerto Rico after a single photograph signaled just how badly supplies were needed.


The words “S.O.S. Necesitamos Agua/Comida,” which translates to “we need water and food,” were written on the pavement of the small town of Humacao. The image was taken on Sunday and has been shared widely on Twitter.

Angelina Ruiz-Lambides, an associate director of the Cayo Santiago Field Station, captured the scene while she was flying over Punta Santiago to survey the damage from Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló saw the SOS image on social media and decided to take action and deliver help himself.

© Provided by CNN“You may have seen the images on social media, it was a big SOS sign that they wanted food and water,” Rosselló said. “We went there, got food and water, established some of the security protocols … we’re really focusing on what needs to get done right now, which is making people have their life support.”

With the help of the National Guard, the island’s governor was able to deliver a complete shipment of supplies to the people of Humacao on Wednesday.

“The governor saw the photo and he wanted to deliver the supplies himself to make sure they arrived to the right location,” said Magdiel Lugo, the governor’s photographer.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló helps deliver supplies to Hurricane Maria victims after seeing a plea for help on social media.© Provided by CNN Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló helps deliver supplies to Hurricane Maria victims after seeing a plea for help on social media.Rosselló stressed that the government is trying to get food, water and fuel to people across the island.

For now 97% of people remain without power throughout the island and about half the residents do not have water. The US military is set to send another 2,000 to 3,000 troops to Puerto Rico in the upcoming days, military officials tell CNN.

Members of Congress are urging the Trump administration to consider a request to suspend shipping restrictions that would allow more fuel and emergency supplies to reach Puerto Rico.

The Jones Act, which prohibits foreign-flagged vessels from picking up and delivering fuel between U.S. ports, was suspended from Sept. 8 through 22 to allow shipments to Texas and Florida in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Puerto Rico was included under that waiver for petroleum products.

However, the Trump administration hasn’t issued a similar waiver yet for Puerto Rico specifically after Hurricane Maria, despite massive fuel shortages on the island that relies on diesel for much of its power.

Drivers wait in line to get fuel at a fuel station in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26, 2017. Puerto Rico continues to face a critical situation due to the passage of Hurricane Maria that destroyed its infrastructures, which maintains the island with virtually no electricity supply, while fuel is scarce in the streets due to distribution problems.

© Thais Llorca, EPA-EFE Drivers wait in line to get fuel at a fuel station in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26, 2017. Puerto Rico continues to face a critical situation due to the passage of Hurricane Maria that…

Any request for a waiver must be in the interest of national defense. The Defense Department, which made a request for Hurricane Harvey, hasn’t made a new request for Puerto Rico yet. If another agency or shipping company makes the request, it must also be reviewed by the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Any request formally goes to Customs and Border Protection and the secretary of Homeland Security.

Gregory Moore, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said in a statement that there was “sufficient capacity” of U.S.-flagged vessels to serve Puerto Rico. Department of Homeland Security officials announced a Wednesday morning news conference to discuss the act.

The U.S. Virgin Islands have a permanent waiver to the Jones Act under the law, but Puerto Rico wasn’t included in that provision.

The waiver request the department received from a handful of House members is unusual, but the department is considering it. A decision is not expected Wednesday, according to a senior administration official.

House members led by Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., urged the department to suspend the restrictions for Puerto Rico.

“When Hurricane Maria savaged the Island, many of our deepest fears were realized,” Velázquez said. “With a power grid that already faced serious infrastructure problems, the storm has shut down power for the entirety of Puerto Rico.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also wrote to the department urging a waiver of the act after the restrictions were lifted twice during the past month. He urged “a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome act.”

“These emergency waivers have been valuable to speed up recovery efforts in the impacted regions,” McCain said. “However, I am very concerned by the department’s decision not to waive the Jones Act for current relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria.”

Some of the damage left by Hurricane Maria in Arecibo, P.R. Hospitals in Puerto Rico are suffering from shortages of water, power and supplies in the wake of the storm.
Some of the damage left by Hurricane Maria in Arecibo, P.R. Hospitals in Puerto Rico are suffering from shortages of water, power and supplies in the wake of the storm. Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
• “This is like in war.”
Those were the words of an emergency doctor in Puerto Rico, where hospitals have been crippled by flooding, damage and fuel shortages since Hurricane Maria battered the island. The airport has become a place of concentrated anxiety and long waits.
Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland are relying on strangers to contact relatives back home, and millions across the Caribbean remain without power or clean water. Here’s how you can help.
President Trump will visit Puerto Rico and the storm-ravaged Virgin Islands next week. He called his administration’s response to recent hurricanes “great,” “amazing” and “tremendous.”

‘This Is Like in War’: A Scramble to Care for Puerto Rico’s Sick and Injured


The situation on Puerto Rico was becoming increasingly critical as residents struggled to find medical care amid a shortage of power, water and gasoline

Puerto Rico’s Agriculture and Farmers Decimated by Maria


Hurricane Maria’s barrage took out entire plantations and destroyed crops and livestock across the island. The storm knocked out about 80 percent of its crops.


“Sometimes when there are shortages, the price of plantain goes up from $1 to $1.25. This time, there won’t be any price increase: There won’t be any product.”

JOSÉ A. RIVERA, a farmer on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico who said Hurricane Maria had knocked down almost all of his 14,000 plantain trees and destroyed his yam and pepper crops.

In isolated mountains of Puerto Rico, residents are running out of basics
Four days after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, leaving the entire island in a communications and power blackout, some regions outside of San Juan remained completely disconnected from the rest of the island — and the world.
By Samantha Schmidt and Joel Achenbach  •
Image may contain: sky, cloud, outdoor and water
Our resolve to protect the sovereignty and quality of life of Puertoriquenos is disgraceful. There was never a time when the island and the people was treated with grace and dignity. I lived there in San Sebastian in Barrio Robles in the late 70’s. Two of my children were born in Aquadilla. It was a paradise. Unfortunately, the governments made choices that impinged upon the quality of life of el pueblo. Companies like GOLDMAN SACHS rode on hedge funds that stripped the nation of its autonomy, but they were not the first. With the free import duties and on the backs of workers like mis suegros, the island was used as a symbol of capitalism in counter distinction to CUBA. When I recall our lives en la Isla Verde, it makes me ill because I used to drive past Lago Guajataca on my way to teach with my wife in Quebrada. We lived near to the forestal on the edge of a sugar cane field. The people were always kind generous hosts and loving with passion their land. To have this threatened in this era is inhuman and devastating. All of my so called friends brothers and sisters used to visit us in rural Puerto Rico outside San Sebastian. Nothing was clearer to me than how the mainland robbed the people of  their sovereignty. 
 Image may contain: sky, house and outdoor

FEMA teams try to get arms around Maria disaster in Puerto Rico

Rick Jervis
 Raw: Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria

TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico — People in this storm-torn town waded though muddy water, swept thick mud out of living rooms or drove through thigh-high water crossings in cars that sputtered, stalled and started again.


Nearby, a  FEMA response team, with specialists from Indiana, California, Florida and other states, took notes or peered into an iPad GPS. The team was on a reconnaissance mission following Hurricane Maria and one of the first signs of the U.S. government’s promised support in the disaster. 

“You hear about the destruction, but honestly, until we get out here and see it firsthand, it’s hard to frame it all up,” said Mike Pruitt, of Indiana, of FEMA’s Incident Support Command.  “It’s absolutely devastating to see what they’ve lost.”

FEMA teams were already in Puerto Rico earlier this month working on relief efforts following Hurricane Irma and sprung into reconnaissance and search-and-rescue missions as soon as Maria’s winds died down. FEMA is widely known as the federal disaster recovery agency, but it’s also involved in dispatching rescue teams and gathering intel in the first chaotic days of a disaster. 

Mike Pruitt, left, and other members of FEMA's Incident Support Team, survey some of the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico on Sept. 22, 2017.© Rick Jervis, USA TODAY Mike Pruitt, left, and other members of FEMA’s Incident Support Team, survey some of the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico on Sept. 22, 2017.President Trump has declared Puerto Rico a major disaster and pledged the full support of the U.S. government.

On the second floor of a sprawling hotel in San Juan’s Isla Verde neighborhood, teams of FEMA officials and search-and-rescue teams from around the USA pecked at laptops or readied backpacks and equipment. The teams rode out Hurricane Maria’s fury in the nearby ballroom. Now, the area serves as the command center for federal responders. 

The hotel houses 276 rescue personnel, including task forces from Virginia, Florida and California, which do the search and rescues, canine units from California and Missouri, and flight specialists, said Karl Lee, a FEMA Incident Support Team member.

Many of the members worked recent storms such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida before asked to help in Puerto Rico, he said. It’s been such a busy year for disasters that each of the 28 task force teams around the USA, which go into disaster areas to rescue people, have been tapped to help, something rarely done, Lee said. 


Image may contain: one or more people, sky and outdoor

“It’s flushed the system,” Lee said. “It’s challenging.”On Friday and Saturday, FEMA teams fanned out across this flood-ravaged town in inflatable boats and high-water vehicles, searching for stranded residents. The Puerto Rican Emergency Management Agency has called Toa Baja, a coastal town 20 miles west of San Juan, one of the hardest-hit areas of the storm, with 2,000 displaced residents and at least eight drownings. It was hit first by Maria’s monstrous winds then water from the overflowing Rio Plata and finally by water released from a nearby dam that was threatening to breach, local officials said. Residents scrambled onto roofs as more than 9 feet of water pushed into some areas. People fled to makeshift shelters and have been sleeping in local schools and the bleachers of ballparks. On Saturday, some residents waved or let out small cheers when they saw a convoy of FEMA teams, including Virginia and Florida task force teams, being driven in high-water vehicles by members of the Puerto Rican National Guard. “Long live USA!” one shirtless man yelled. Image may contain: sky, tree and outdoorJohanna Ortega, 41, a resident whose house took on 6 feet of water, said the convoy was the first sign of help they’ve seen since the floods. “Nothing’s working, we don’t hear from anyone,” she said. “We feel abandoned.”

Another response team, Virginia Task Force 1, led a convoy to Ponce, on the southern edge of the island Wednesday. With Maria’s remnants still whipping at them, the convoy of six Jeep Wranglers trudged through flooded highways and damaged roads. The usual hour-and-a-half drive took five hours, said Rob Schoenberger, of Fairfield, Va., who led the mission. 

They were the first first-responders to emerge in the region following the storm. The local state police unit was so happy to see them they escorted them into town and showed them where to refill their gas tanks, he said. 

Though roofs had blown off and trees and debris littered the street, overall Ponce fared well from the storm, Schoenberger said. There were no reports of mass casualty or signs of widespread destruction. 

Schoenberger, who rescued Houston flood victims during Harvey, said Puerto Rico’s destruction is unique in how a lack of communication has gripped the entire island – and how the storm impacted essentially every corner of the U.S. territory. 

“This disaster is as big as this island, end to end,” he said. “There is no safe haven.” 

Image may contain: outdoor


Facing Months in the Dark, Ordinary Life in Puerto Rico is ‘Beyond Reach’


In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans were contemplating empty refrigerators, campfire cooking and perhaps wrangling for fresh water.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — In the northern Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja, the floodwaters reached more than 10 feet. Stranded residents screamed “save me, save me,” using the lights in their cellphones to help rescue teams find them in the darkness, the town’s mayor said.

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

In Loiza, a north coastal town that already had been ravaged by Hurricane Irma, 90 percent of homes — 3,000 — were destroyed by Hurricane Maria just days later. In communities across the island, bridges collapsed and highways were severely damaged, isolating many residents. In Rio Grande, officials had yet to access a number of families stuck in their homes, three days after the powerful storm made landfall.

When speaking about his town’s destruction, Ramon Hernandez Torres, mayor of the southern city of Juana Díaz, took a long pause, his voice catching and his eyes filling with tears.

“It’s a total disaster,” he said.

Image may contain: outdoor

Hurricane Maria pounded the entire island of Puerto Rico on Wednesday, but the scope of the damage had been speculative and unclear since, in large part because towns across the U.S. territory have been completely off the grid. Though images from the air showed incredible destruction, mayors were unable to reach central government for leadership and help because communication was impossible. No telephones, cellphones, or Internet. No power. No passage through roads that had been washed away or blocked with trees and power lines.

But on Saturday, for the first time in days, mayors and representatives from more than 50 municipalities across Puerto Rico met with government officials at the emergency operations command center here in the island’s capital city. Many of the mayors learned about the meeting through media reports over satellite radio the night before. One mayor said his staff was informed after a man ran to his offices with a note telling him to make his way to San Juan.

Image may contain: outdoor

Approximately 20 other mayors across the island still have not been able to make contact with government officials, leaving major gaps in the broader understanding of the damage Maria left behind.

The mayors greeted each other with hugs and tears, and they pleaded with their governor for some of the things their communities need most: drinking water, prescription drugs, gasoline, oxygen tanks, and satellite phones. The entire population remains without electricity. Families everywhere are unable to buy food or medical treatment. Roads remain waterlogged, and looting has begun to take place at night.

Image may contain: tree, shoes, plant, outdoor and nature


“There is horror in the streets,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said in a raw, emotional interview with The Washington Post. “People are actually becoming prisoners in their own homes.”

Image may contain: sky, cloud and outdoor

“Whenever I walk through San Juan,” Yulín said, she sees the “sheer pain in people’s eyes. . . . They’re kind of glazed, not because of what has happened but because of the difficulty of what will come,” she said. “I know we’re not going to get to everybody in time. . . . Two days ago I said I was concerned about that. Now I know we won’t get to everybody in time.”

Oscar Santiago, mayor of the northern coastal city of Vega Alta, said many of his community’s families refused to evacuate their flooded homes. One little girl was standing barefoot with her family on a roof, which was littered with nails, he said. When he asked her to put on some sandals, she told him: “The hurricane took them.”

Image may contain: one or more people, sky, tree and outdoor

Marcos Cruz Molina, mayor of Vega Baja, said even his own wooden home was destroyed, and he has since sought shelter with his parents. Jose Rodriguez, mayor of Hatillo, in the northwest, said “hundreds and hundreds” of homes in his town were obliterated. “It’s catastrophic,” he said.

The meeting in San Juan came a day after the governor urged residents downstream from Lake Guajataca — a population of nearly 70,000 — to evacuate amid fears that a dam holding the lake back might fail because of damage from Hurricane Maria’s floodwaters. Officials said the dam’s structural damage was caused by a “fissure,” a crack that had grown to a significant “rupture” by Saturday. The dam’s failure could lead to massive amounts of water flowing through coastal communities along a river’s path to the ocean, and authorities believed evacuation was the only option.

Local authorities said the actual number of residents remaining in those towns at risk of destruction was most likely much lower because of early overestimates, officials said. Evacuations continued on Saturday.


The official death toll on the island from Hurricane Maria has risen to 10. One died when he was struck in the head by a panel, another died in an accident with an excavating machine, three died in landslides, two in flooding in Toa Baja, and two police officers in Aguada drowned when the Culebrinas River overflowed.

One person in Arecibo died after being swept away by rising water. Officials believe there are probably others they haven’t yet been able to confirm.

At the intersection of Routes 2 and 1o in Arecibo, employees of the Gulf Express gas station and their families — about 20 people in all — were hard at work Saturday. Their boots and sneakers were caked with mud because there is mud everywhere: On their pants and shirts, in their cars and on the walls of their homes. The makeshift cleanup crew was using brooms to sweep out the grayish brown slop that lay two or three inches thick inside.

After Maria blew threw the city, taking down trees and power lines, the flash floods came.

“The water had to be at least six, maybe seven feet high,” said Nelson Rodriguez, an employee at the Gulf Express. “It took everything. All the medicine in the pharmacy, all the food, it’s gone.”

Every home and business in this part of Arecibo was affected by the flooding. Two blocks away from the gas station, Eduardo Carraquillo, 45, helped his father, Ismael Freytes, 69, clean the mud out of their yellow, first-floor apartment. Inside, a film, rising six feet high on the walls, marked where water stagnated for much of a full day.

“The water just pushed through the door, as if it had been left open,” Carraquillo said. “We all evacuated the day after the storm, because we were warned about the flash flood that might come. Everyone left, just to be safe, except for two older men that lived a few houses away. They just didn’t want to leave. When we came back, we found out the flood had killed them right there in that apartment.”

Some Puerto Rico officials believe it could be months before the island recovers and that it will be at least a year before some sense of normalcy returns.

Officials estimate it will take three weeks for hospitals to regain power, and about six months for the rest of the island to have electricity. By Saturday, 25 percent of the population had telecommunications connections.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced efforts to centralize medical care and shelters for the elderly. He also plans to distribute 250 satellite phones among mayors to facilitate communication. He said he urged the mayors to develop a “buddy system” with other local officials.

Yulín, San Juan’s mayor, said she has never seen such devastation, but she also said she has never seen such determination to make it. She described a phrase she keeps hearing from residents: “Yo soy Boricua. I am from Puerto Rico.”

“That has become the very courageous way of saying we are going to overcome anything that comes our way,” she said.

A janitor stopped Yulín with a request on Friday: “Tell the world we’re here,” he said, Yulín recounted. “Tell everyone we’re fighting. Tell everyone that can listen that we are going to make it.”

With her voice faltering, Yulín echoed that cry: “If anyone can hear us … help.”

“Those are words that no society should have to endure alone or ever,” Yulín said. “What I would ask is not only for Puerto Rico, but for the entire Caribbean that has been hit so hard by this: Do not forget us and do not let us feel alone.”

Cassady reported from Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

‘Thousands of people could die’: 70,000 in Puerto Rico urged to evacuate with dam in ‘imminent’ danger of failure
Because of damage from Hurricane Maria’s floodwaters, officials worried that tens of thousands of people could be in the path of a massive amount of rushing water in the event that the Guajataca Dam, after suffering a “fissure,” releases into the Guajataca River, which flows north through low-lying coastal communities.
By Samantha Schmidt, Katie Zezima, Sandhya Somashekhar and Daniel Cassady  

Trees are reflected in the water in the Buena Vista community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.© AP Photo/Carlos Giusti Trees are reflected in the water in the Buena Vista community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in the U.S. Congress said Sunday that Hurricane Maria’s destruction has set the island back decades, even as authorities worked to assess the extent of the damage.


“The devastation in Puerto Rico has set us back nearly 20 to 30 years,” said Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez. “I can’t deny that the Puerto Rico of now is different from that of a week ago. The destruction of properties, of flattened structures, of families without homes, of debris everywhere. The island’s greenery is gone.”

Engineers on Sunday planned to inspect the roughly 90-year-old Guajataca Dam, which holds back a reservoir covering about 2 square miles (5 square kilometers) in northwest Puerto Rico. The government said it suffered a large crack after Maria dumped 15 inches (nearly 40 centimeters) of rain on the surrounding mountains and that it “will collapse at any minute.” Nearby residents had been evacuated, but began returning to their homes Saturday after a spillway eased pressure on the dam.

Puerto Rico’s National Guard diverted an oil tanker that broke free and threatened to crash into the southeast coast, said Gov. Ricardo Rossello, and officials still had not had communication with nine of 78 municipalities.

“This is a major disaster,” he said. “We’ve had extensive damage. This is going to take some time.”

The death toll from Maria in Puerto Rico was at least 10, including two police officers who drowned in floodwaters in the western town of Aguada. That number was expected to climb as officials from remote towns continued to check in with officials in San Juan. Authorities in the town of Vega Alta on the north coast said they had been unable to reach an entire neighborhood called Fatima, and were particularly worried about residents of a nursing home.

Across the Caribbean, Maria had claimed at least 31 lives, including at least 15 on hard-hit Dominica.

Mike Hyland, a spokesman for the American Public Power Association, which represents the Puerto Rican power agency, said Sunday that restoration is a long ways off. The organization is working with U.S. Energy Department crews as well as New York Power Authority workers sent down by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fly over the island and assess damage.

Crews hoped to get helicopters and drones in the air over the next two days to assess the damage, but Hyland said they need to be patient and let the military continue rescuing people before focusing on restoring power.

“We are trying to get an understanding of the extent of the damage over the next 48 hours to then begin to work with our federal partners to get the right crews and equipment down to Puerto Rico,” Hyland said.

Large amounts of federal aid have begun moving into Puerto Rico, welcomed by local officials who praised the Trump administration’s response but called for the emergency loosening of rules long blamed for condemning the U.S. territory to second-class status.

The opening of the island’s main port in the capital allowed 11 ships to bring in 1.6 million gallons of water, 23,000 cots, dozens of generators and food. Dozens more shipments are expected in upcoming days.

The federal aid effort is racing to stem a growing humanitarian crisis in towns left without fresh water, fuel, electricity or phone service. Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of the relief effort, said they would take satellite phones to all of Puerto Rico’s towns and cities, more than half of which were cut off following Maria’s devastating crossing of Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

The island’s infrastructure was in sorry shape long before Maria struck. A $73 billion debt crisis has left agencies like the state power company broke. As a result the power company abandoned most basic maintenance in recent years, leaving the island subject to regular blackouts.

A federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances authorized up to $1 billion in local funds to be used for hurricane response, but the governor said he would ask for more.

“We’re going to request waivers and other mechanisms so Puerto Rico can respond to this crisis,” Rossello said. “Puerto Rico will practically collect no taxes in the next month.”

U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York said she will request a one-year waiver from the Jones Act, a federal law blamed for driving up prices on Puerto Rico by requiring cargo shipments there to move only on U.S. vessels as a means of supporting the U.S. maritime industry.

“We will use all our resources,” Velazquez said. “We need to make Puerto Rico whole again. These are American citizens.”

A group of anxious mayors traveled to the capital to meet with Rossello to present a long list of items they urgently need. The north coastal town of Manati had run out of fuel and fresh water, Mayor Jose Sanchez Gonzalez said.

“Hysteria is starting to spread. The hospital is about to collapse. It’s at capacity,” he said, crying. “We need someone to help us immediately.”

Across Puerto Rico, more than 15,000 people were in shelters, including some 2,000 rescued from the north coastal town of Toa Baja. Many Puerto Ricans planned to head to the mainland to temporarily escape the devastation.

AP reporter Christopher Gillette contributed from Guajataca, Puerto Rico.

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