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Some Progress Visible Amid Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Effort


Millions of people without food or water for a day or two is one kind of emergency. Millions of people still without food or water or electricity after 12 days is a problem of an entirely different magnitude, and it's what Puerto Ricans are facing 12 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall on that American island. NPR's John Burnett is in Puerto Rico spending time with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is trying to help.

Hi, John.


INSKEEP: What've you been seeing?

BURNETT: Well, you know, 12 days after the storm, there're still isolated towns that are completely cut off from help - no fuel, no water, no food. But there is some progress. And on the highways now around the island, you're starting to see fuel tankers and trucks full of drinking water barreling down these roads outside the capital.

And so the aid is starting to flow into some areas. But still, there're are other towns that, you know, are still desperate for help. And in order to see what the U.S. government was doing on the ground, I spent all day yesterday with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

INSKEEP: And where did you go, and what'd you do?

BURNETT: Well, I went with two crews. And the first one, we went out to San Lorenzo, and we - they met with people to find out what damages they'd had. They did the same thing they do after hurricane - the hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

INSKEEP: Earlier - of course, of course, that hit Houston and Florida as well.


INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit more of your reporting from the ground, John Burnett.


The way it works in a major catastrophe is that FEMA coordinates the entire U.S. government response. In Puerto Rico, that means that FEMA decides how the 6,400 U.S. troops are to be used. The agency contracts with trucks and drivers to distribute food, and water and fuel around the island. It arranges for U.S. federal agents to guard gas stations. And it does what's called Disaster Survivor Assistance, or DSA. That's who I followed yesterday.

The day began in a sports stadium in the municipality of San Lorenzo in eastern Puerto Rico. About 50 people sat patiently in plastic chairs, waiting their turn to speak to DSA specialists. FEMA official Edwin Rodriguez (ph) explained what the agency does. They register people's storm damage.

EDWIN RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

BURNETT: And Hurricane Maria left lots of destruction in San Lorenzo.

LIONEL FLORES: (Foreign language spoken).

BURNETT: Lionel Flores (ph) owns a hydroponics nursery that grows lettuce, cilantro and spinach. He says his greenhouses are a total loss, which he estimates at about $45,000. Sitting in front of him was Milsa Cruz (ph), a respiratory therapist. She said the hurricane blew apart her wooden house on a hill and destroyed everything inside, from her TV to her electric stove.

A disaster survivor can receive up to $33,000 in cash assistance from FEMA, but that amount varies widely. Disaster specialist Edwin Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican native, said he asked for this assignment.

RODRIGUEZ: I actually was in Texas, and for Hurricane Harvey, I was assigned to the county Gonzales. And we just found out that this storm was going to my country. I said to my supervisors, I need to go back to Puerto Rico to take care of my family and also take care of my people here, so I...

BURNETT: Washington has been harshly criticized for its sluggish response to Maria, for not promptly realizing the scale of the catastrophe on a U.S. commonwealth. John Rabin is the acting administrator for the FEMA region that includes the Caribbean. He sat down for an interview in the Emergency Operations Center in San Juan.

JOHN RABIN: We all join the government to help people. So of course, no one's happy when people are dying, and no one's happy when response doesn't go as quickly as we would like it to be.

BURNETT: His comments do not validate the president's Sunday tweet that, quote, "we have it under really great control in Puerto Rico." But things are moving faster. Rabin says they're distributing a million meals ready to eat, and 25 fuel trucks should arrive on a barge today. He also asked people to understand that Maria coming immediately after Harvey and Irma was a triple whammy.

RABIN: Hurricane Maria was catastrophic to Puerto Rico. And a Cat 5 storm hitting an island a thousand miles or so away from the United States is devastating. It's also a very complex response.

BURNETT: What has made FEMA's work in Puerto Rico more challenging is the great majority of the island's 78 municipalities were cut off from all communication. That's why FEMA workers Caroline Cuddy and Larissa Santoro (ph) drove to the city of Florida late yesterday to bring the mayor a satellite telephone. Santoro is a 36-year-old architect who joined FEMA six years ago.

LARISSA SANTORO: Also bring the satellite phone, which is something we're real excited to give to the mayor so that we can be in better communications with him and not - from San Juan.

CAROLINE CUDDY: Yeah, that - so our communication has been really bad. That's why we've been driving back and forth every day. This is our third day.

BURNETT: A FEMA-contracted 18-wheeler arrived here on Saturday, delivering food and water to 1,200 locals. One of the post-Maria issues in Florida is how to drain a lagoon that's flooded 80 homes and displaced about 175 people. Larissa Santoro wondered if there's a way that FEMA debris removal crews could unstop a drain.

SANTORO: If there's a catch basin or a culvert under this road, I want to know where it is so we can send a boat out maybe and some debris crews to help remove that.


BURNETT: The sat phone will help FEMA talk with the mayor of Florida to figure out how to drain his flooded neighborhoods so people can start repairing their houses. Multiply this one local problem a thousand times across the island, and FEMA says you get an idea of what they're facing.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's John Burnett, who's still on the line from Puerto Rico. And John, as you know very well, President Trump has been battling with the mayor of San Juan. She said, we need more help. The president attacked her on Twitter and said, our first responders are doing a great job. When you talked with Puerto Ricans, did they feel that the aid effort has been great?

BURNETT: Well, I think the people who are getting the aid, as I said in the piece, are very grateful that the United States is treating them like U.S. citizens and coming to their aid. But, you know, many others who are completely isolated, they're not seeing anything. And I think they would not appreciate the president's overconfident tweets that somehow everything is going great. All they have to do is look around, and they see that that is not the truth.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much, as always - really appreciate it.

BURNETT: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett reporting today from Puerto Rico.


John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.