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Puerto Rico mayors demand help: We need water, food, diesel

By on September 28, 2017

SAN JUAN – Lack of water, food and fuel. Eight days after Hurricane María ravaged Puerto Rico, the needs of the vast majority of municipalities are the most basic one, not only at shelters and hospitals–there are only 18 operational–but also in difficult to reach areas, and where there are supplies, the wait lines are endless.

After a meeting with La Fortaleza’s minister of Municipal Affairs, Omar Negrón, Wednesday at the Convention Center, the government’s command center during this emergency, four mayors told Caribbean Business about the devastation left by the worst storm to have swept the island in the past 80 years.

Long lines have become the norm at the few supermarkets and gas stations open. (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

‘Yabucoa is destroyed’

At least 2,000 homes in the Municipality of Yabucoa, through which the eye of Category 4 Hurricane María entered, sustained total or partial damages inflicted by up to 155-mile per hour winds. Ninety-nine percent of the municipality’s infrastructure–from City Hall to the town recreation areas and parks–sustained damages estimated at $50 million. And a week later, 28 of the 140 evacuees were still in the last open shelter in Yabucoa.

“We are giving them the supplies provided by the Education Department in terms of food, but the time has come that every day that goes by the crisis is getting worse because those supplies are running out, those evacuees are there with the same clothes with which they arrived,” said Yabucoa Mayor Rafael Surillo.

The mayor of the southeastern municipality went “full of hope” to the meeting with government officials to voice the needs of his town and the concern “at the country level”: to repair the Port of Yabucoa, where 33 percent of the island’s fuel is received.

Surillo required diesel for the generator of the municipal Diagnostic and Treatment Center (CDT by its Spanish initials), whose use had to be reduced to 12 hours to avoid overloading it because in Yabucoa “we will be more than two or three months without power.” Practically the entire island still doesn’t have electricity. He also said he needed generators and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has yet to provide any.

“I’m leaving very frustrated, and this isn’t in terms of politics. This must be organized in a better way […] Until the Electric Power Authority [Prepa] does not begin to restore electricity to hospitals, we will continue in crisis,” regretted Surillo, who abandoned the government meeting and like many Puerto Ricans says he has lost sleep over “the huge crisis.”

‘Ponce is devastated’

In the Pearl of the South, as Ponce is called, the case was not very different. Residents have already filed some 5,500 claims for damages to homes, many completely lost and others roofless. Eight shelters continue to provide refuge to 514 evacuees. Damage to municipal infrastructure is estimated at more than $50 million, as areas such as the La Guancha boardwalk are were destroyed.

Only three banks have opened, but limit cash withdrawals to $100 a person, at a time when the debit and credit card system is virtually useless due to connectivity problems.

Regarding hospitals, the municipality has had to do whatever it can to supply them with diesel to keep their generators running. The same goes for the equipment that power the five Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa) plants.

“Until today, it has been the municipality that has had to give face. Yes, a Housing [Department] employee and two or three people…have lent a hand with shelters,” said Ponce Mayor María “Mayita” Meléndez, who remains hopeful that “we will pick  ourselves up like lions and warriors.”

‘It is difficult for us to get to San Juan’

In Río Grande, a municipality on the northeastern coast, the problems were replicated: at least $3 million in damage to municipal structures, more than 5,000 loss claims filed by individuals and about 200 evacuees in three shelters.

The municipal CDT “collapsed in the morning” Wednesday due to problems with its generator. And a murder Saturday, which “appears to be a home break-in,” required doubling security with the 33 municipal police officers available.

“I couldn’t arrive on time [to the meeting]. I had staff representing us because it is very difficult for us to [abandon] the town [for the meeting]…. It is difficult for us to come to San Juan, but if we don’t come to seek help, it won’t come. That’s how we did it yesterday [Tuesday] and today [Wednesday], and we got food and water to arrive. We know it isn’t enough, because they are small boxes with only one meal,” said Río Grande Mayor Ángel “Boris” González, desperate but “optimistic.”

‘There hasn’t been adequate logistics’

For the mayor of Caguas, William Miranda Torres, the desperation of the situation “is that the coordination for aid to arrive hasn’t been the most effective. We don’t understand why. Food has been scarce. Water has been a critical issue. Fuel, you see the anguish, the despair. There are people who are depressed, others are mad. So the levels of tolerance continue to fall.”

“There han’t been adequate logistics…. [We need] water and food. Until today [Wednesday] we have not received anything, just promises,” denounced the mayor, concerned about the food for 600 senior citizens who have a meal twice a day, if that.

In the city in the eastern center of the island there are still 124 evacuees in three shelters. There are more than 5,000 claims, of which at least 500 are for completely lost or significantly damaged homes. While damages amount to at least $30 million.

Mountain towns a concern

La Fortaleza’s Municipal Affairs adviser said, the mayors’ qualms were not against the central government, but the meeting’s “dynamic,” whereby representatives of the 78 municipalities intended to present their situations simultaneously.

He denied that the government had been absent in municipalities, attributed difficulties in the response to a lack of communication, and maintained that an agency director was sent to each municipality, although the information provided by these to the command center remained unclear.

Although he defended the government’s emergency response, Negrón was concerned about mountain towns such as Orocovis and Utuado, where there are “inaccessible areas” to which rescue teams may need to be sent. A clearer picture of the isolated sectors in the different towns was expected after the mayors filed their reports.

“Until communications haven’t been reestablished, the ideal thing is for municipalities to regularly send staff from their municipalities,” Negrón told Caribbean Business. “The reality is everything here is worked on with FEMA and it is FEMA that distributes most of their requests…. I am serving as an intermediary with FEMA,” he added.

Alternatives for mayors

Negrón said alternatives were present to the mayors during the meeting. Priority will be given in fuel distribution to hospitals and supermarkets, and municipalities will be able to coordinate with the General Service Administration (ASG by its Spanish initials) to transport diesel if mayors cannot find a way to do it themselves.

Also, 12 FEMA distribution centers were announced where municipalities can collect water and food at a designated schedule for each.

“We are attending to them. Each and every one of the requests, which are various, is being heard. Nobody is being given preferential treatment with anything,” the municipal affairs adviser said.

After the meeting—and another one the government had with federal officials—a summary of the day’s developments was not given. Two days after the hurricane, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló gave his first press conference and since then, it Wednesday was the only day without a government information briefing. The governor was delivering supplies to Salinas on Tuesday, where he answered questions from reporters and acknowledged problems with the logistics of distributing food, water and fuel.

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