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After Harvey and Irma, Can a Thinly Stretched FEMA Come Through for Puerto Rico?

With recovery efforts entering a second week, the White House is pushing back hard against complaints that the federal government’s response in Puerto Rico has been less robust than in hurricane-hammered Texas and Florida.

(TNS) - Nibbling on dwindling food stocks, lacking crucial medications, sweltering in half-wrecked homes with only tainted water for washing and barely any for drinking: For many in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria’s aftermath has been even more harrowing than the mighty storm itself.

Amid growing warnings of a potential humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean island territory that is home to 3.4 million U.S. citizens, federal relief efforts were ramping up Wednesday, even as criticism mounted. Among the most urgent priorities were food and water deliveries for isolated, storm-pounded rural communities and distribution of diesel for generators to power vital services such as hospital equipment and sanitation systems.

About 97 percent of the island’s residents still lacked power Wednesday, Gov. Ricardo Rossello said, and about half remain without running water.

With recovery efforts entering a second week, the White House is pushing back hard against complaints that the federal government’s response in Puerto Rico has been less robust than in hurricane-hammered Texas and Florida.

Officials from President Donald Trump down have cited logistical and geographical challenges in rushing aid to an island territory 1,000 miles from the U.S. mainland.

“We’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and on Florida,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday. “And we will also on Puerto Rico.”

The White House announced plans for Trump to visit the ravaged island next Tuesday, although the extent of planned presidential interaction with local people was not yet clear. Trump generally is most comfortable visiting places where he is likely to be warmly received.

Hurricane Maria, with winds just a whisper short of Category 5 status, tore through the island Sept. 20, less than two weeks after Puerto Rico was sideswiped by monster Hurricane Irma. The already faltering power grid collapsed.

Many see little prospect of life returning to normal any time soon. Daniel Rodriguez, 20, had cows on his mind.

He and his mother drove about an hour west from coastal Rio Grande to wait in line for help in the capital. A cracked wall in their storm-damaged home could give way, he said, and there’s a cow pasture right outside.

“If the wall comes down, they’re coming in the house,” Rodriguez said.

Criticism of the federal effort intensified Wednesday, including some from members of Trump’s party. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tweeted that it was “unacceptable” that the Department of Homeland Security had denied a request to waive shipping restrictions to help rush fuel and supplies to Puerto Rico.

The administration argued that waiving the Jones Act, which limits shipping between coasts to U.S.-flagged vessels, would do little to ease the biggest bottleneck: damaged ports. McCain said he had urged the department to reconsider.

After back-to-back hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated Texas and Florida, respectively, Trump was quick to chart the destruction on Twitter, and made visits to those states within days. But until Monday night, he was largely silent about Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, instead devoting one angry tweet after another to professional football players who kneel during the national anthem.

That contrast was pointedly noted by Puerto Rico’s supporters in Congress and elsewhere.

“Our fellow Americans’ lives are on the line,” Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., tweeted at Trump on Wednesday. “Puerto Rico must receive every resource it needs to confront this crisis.”

Daily life is an unceasing struggle. Banks across the island remain closed, so people are cash-strapped. A dusk-to-dawn curfew is supposed to help restore order, but people are sometimes forced to break the law as they wait in long gas lines.

“People in the street are doing what they can to survive,” said U.S. Navy Ensign Orlando Sanchez-Matos, part of a San Juan-based military contingent getting ready to help build a shelter in the capital’s Hato Rey neighborhood.

About 1.5 million people remained without drinking water, the Pentagon said Wednesday. Fifty-nine of the island’s 69 hospitals were operational, it said, but communications problems have hampered status reporting.

Hospitals, like other institutions, were using couriers to send and receive information.

San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport and nine other airports were storm-damaged but operating, and three seaports were open as well, with five more ports in limited use, according to the Pentagon. The military said it was moving from a sea-based rescue effort to a land-based-one, concentrating on route clearance and aid distribution.

In San Juan, the convention center serving as headquarters for the relief effort was abuzz with activity. Dozens waited outside to sign up for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. Inside, uniformed staff from FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard and Department of Defense darted from room to room, coordinating aid efforts.

About 2,200 federal employees are on the scene, including 500 from FEMA, officials said.

The military’s role has deepened, with more than 70 personnel and eight HH-60 medevac Black Hawk helicopters from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division deployed to the island, the Pentagon said.

Gov. Rossello was scheduled to visit the town of Salinas and deliver supplies Wednesday afternoon. FEMA said it has been in touch with all 78 mayors, some of whom have been issued satellite phones because most cellphone service was knocked out.

“We had a real problem with communications at first,” said Delyris Aquino, a San Juan-based FEMA spokeswoman. “Now we are getting things out.”

She also disputed any notion that the predominantly Spanish-speaking territory was being slighted in any way, saying that Puerto Rico was being given “the same amount of aid as any other territory or state.”

Still, the need was overwhelming. Some hospitals have closed because of the lack of electricity and gasoline to fuel generators, while officials at others have warned that fuel will run out this week. Aquino said FEMA was identifying which hospitals and other critical sites were running low on gas, including sewage pumping stations.

The wrecked power grid is one of the biggest problems. Teams from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have finished assessing damage and were expected to start installing equipment Wednesday, FEMA said.

Weather was blamed for delaying some elements of the federal response, as thunderstorms persisted for days after the storm blew through. La Conquistador, a barge stocked with supplies that was stationed to the south of the Dominican Republic, couldn’t be deployed to Puerto Rico until Saturday, when the Coast Guard gave an all-clear, Aquino said.

Parts of the island’s mountainous interior remained incommunicado, with roads blocked and landslide danger looming as rains continued to fall. Some supplies were air-dropped, but personnel could not always follow.

“If it’s not safe, we cannot send our responders,” Aquino said.

She said barges were arriving daily loaded with vital supplies: generators, food, water, cots and blankets.

Transport complications including many canceled flights led some aid workers to seek unconventional means of travel to the island.

Two staffers from Direct Relief, a medical nonprofit based in Goleta, Calif., were aboard a cruise ship sailing from Miami to Puerto Rico, scheduled to arrive Wednesday with a passenger roster made up mainly of aid workers and worried relatives of Puerto Rico residents.

Damon Taugher, the group’s director of U.S. programs, said new information was emerging by the hour in terms of what type of medical supplies could be brought in, or how aid can be delivered to the hardest-hit areas.

“There’s tight control over who can bring in what,” Taugher said. “Our goal is to speak with officials at the health department and try to figure out how we can be most helpful, but it’s a very changing environment.”


(Staff writer Vives reported from Los Angeles, staff writer Hennessy-Fiske from San Juan and staff writer Etehad from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Laura King and W.J. Hennigan contributed from Washington.)


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