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Puerto Ricans struggle with aftermath, lack of aid

Karen Morales
Puerto Ricans struggle with aftermath, lack of aid
Photographs taken after Hurricane Maria show devastation on the roads in Puerto Rico. (Photo: FRED PAPALI)

As expected, Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria’s destruction has been slow and painful. The natural disaster destroyed homes, cut off most of the island from electricity and littered roads with fallen trees and debris.

Author: FRED PAPALIPhotographs taken after Hurricane Maria show devastation on the roads in Puerto Rico.

Supplies delivered from the mainland moved at a glacial pace, especially as it took a week for President Trump to temporarily waive the Jones Act, a law that bars foreign vessels to Puerto Rico, as well as the challenges of damaged airports and seaports. But the main problem now is distribution. Truck drivers are few, communication from towns in need is impeded by unreliable cell service and many roads are still blocked.

The U.S. territory was already ill-equipped to handle such devastating circumstances not only from Hurricane Maria, but Hurricane Irma as well. With a debt load of $73 billion, Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy in May. The federal government also has had to respond to hurricane damage on the Virgin Islands, as well as across the continental United States.

But instead of distinguishing between Puerto Rico’s financial crisis and its current humanitarian crisis, Trump chose to lord the island’s debt problem over its head.

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” the president tweeted last Monday.

Possibly even more callous was acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, who called the federal government’s aid efforts a “good news story.”

San Juan Mayor Yulin Cruz did not mince words during a recent press conference. “We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency,” she said, directing her statements to the U.S. government.

“I am asking the members of the press to send a mayday call all over the world. If we don’t get the water and the food into people’s hands, what we are going to see is something close to a genocide,” she said. “Mr. Trump, I beg you to take charge and save lives.”

The president took Cruz’s words personally, taking again to Twitter to make his thoughts known.

“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” he tweeted Saturday. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 federal workers now on island doing a fantastic job.”

Fred Papali, a physician from Baltimore with family on the island, spent three days witnessing the dire situation in Puerto Rico.

Papali told the Banner that most officials on the ground have remained focused on the people, but statements like President Trump’s are a distraction from necessary aid actions.

What’s really needed, according to Papali, is access to clean water, food and cleared roads. He said he saw people having to drink rainwater and store lines that stretched around the block with customers only allowed to buy two items at a time. He described hundreds of people in line at gas stations, families in dilapidated homes, and sewage overflows.

When Papali didn’t hear from his parents for a week after the hurricane, he booked a flight to the island, rented a car and made his way to Punta Santiago, an hour from San Juan, where his family resides. He was able to connect with them but found that the beach town was “completely destroyed. Just gone,” he said.

“The Punta Santiago fishing pier, about a half-mile away and which had survived so many hurricanes before it, was now — quite literally — in Mom’s back yard,” he wrote in an email updating his friends and family on the U.S. mainland.

Luckily, many of the locals had already cleared some roads by the time Papali got there, but cell reception, power and running water in the area are nonexistent and residents have to make their way to the nearest city for supplies.

Papali said that when he landed, he saw many military personnel waiting for instructions, with pounds upon pounds of supplies.

“The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough supplies, but the distribution of it,” he said. “Especially to those rural and remote towns.”

At press time, President Trump was scheduled to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday.

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