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Puerto Rico Recovery Efforts Continue Amid Criticisms


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are going to start the program today in Puerto Rico, which is still lacking food, clean water, communication and fuel supplies 10 days after Hurricane Maria lashed the island. Here is the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, at a press conference this morning.


RICARDO ROSSELLO: Progress is being made, but we need to make more progress, and we're confident that with the collaboration with the federal government, the help that the administration has given Puerto Rico - continues - continued communication, continued support - we will get out of this emergency phase and start on the rebuilding process of a stronger Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: Others, however, have been critical of the federal government's response to the crisis, especially San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. After acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke called the emergency operations, quote, "a good news story" on Friday, Mayor Cruz punched back during an interview with CNN.


CARMEN YULIN CRUZ: When you're drinking from the creek, it's not a good news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from their buildings because - you know, I'm sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me.

MARTIN: President Trump was not pleased and responded with a tweet storm blasting the mayor personally, saying she has shown, quote, "poor leadership," and the president's also faulted Puerto Ricans themselves who he said, quote, "want everything done for them," unquote. We've called on NPR's John Burnett, who is at the disaster press center in San Juan, to tell us more about conditions in Puerto Rico and how people are responding to all of this. Hi, John. Thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So you've been out and about this morning in the capital. What are people saying about the president's comments critical of San Juan's mayor?

BURNETT: Well, first of all, it may be all over the media in the U.S. this morning, but nobody I talked to in San Juan actually knew that Trump had attacked their mayor. Remember, there's no power here. There's no Internet. People can't watch TV, and so they don't really know what's going on on the other side of San Juan much less in the rest of the world. But - so I read them the president's tweets, and here are some of the reactions from three Puerto Ricans I met outside of a Denny's that miraculously opened this morning with air conditioning and pancakes. In order we're going to hear Monce Ramirez, a legal assistant, Enrique Monagas, an insurance adjuster, and speaking in Spanish a real estate agent named Carmen Arana.

MONCE RAMIREZ: I don't go along with the San Juan mayor. I mean, I don't think she's doing a good job. But I don't like what Trump said about people not trying to do things, you know, help out and get things going again. It's just too big what's happened.

ENRIQUE MONAGAS: She's desperate as everybody is. You know, we still have towns that haven't received any kind of help because they are in - uncommunicated. So all the mayors - the majority of them - are very desperate for help.

CARMEN ARANA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Carmen Arana is very defensive. She says Puerto Ricans are hard workers, and they help each other. She says our leaders are doing the best job they can under the circumstances, but they absolutely have to have U.S. help. One other guy chimed in, when the president visits the island on Tuesday, he'll see for himself how badly it's torn up, and maybe he'll be more understanding.

MARTIN: So, John, to that end, are you seeing any evidence of relief operations? Do you see aid shipments getting to people?

BURNETT: Well, what the governor says is true. Every day it is a little bit better. There's a little more out there. The central government says 65 percent of the gas stations are open, though lines are still incredibly long. Half of all the supermarkets are open with limited hours. Thirty percent of the cellphone network is working, but most of that's clustered here around the capital. And only 5 percent of the country currently has electricity. But, you know, I've been out and about, and I've quizzed other NPR reporters who've been around the island, and we haven't really seen that many relief convoys on the highways. Once in a while, you see fuel tankers racing down the freeway with police escorts, you know, lights and siren. One reporter described it like "Mad Max: Fury Road."

MARTIN: Do you see evidence or do you - are you aware of any plan?

BURNETT: What you need to understand is that everything depends on diesel and gasoline. It keeps the hospitals and supermarkets and retirement homes open. The cellphone towers run on it. It keeps the home generators running that power the fridge that keeps the groceries from going bad. So fuel is the key to it all. There are enough fuel supplies on the island, but they can't find enough drivers for the tanker trucks, and they don't seem to be able to find drivers for the cargo trucks either to take relief supplies to the hinterlands. A newspaper interviewed some of these truck drivers, and I read they said they haven't been contacted to report to work or I don't have gas in my car to drive to the truck terminal.

MARTIN: So once they can get the trucks into the countryside, what then? Is there a plan for getting supplies to the people who desperately need them?

BURNETT: The FEMA director here says they're really building the supply chain. The idea is to set up nine centers of distribution. Each one will then have supplies for the surrounding nine municipalities, things like water, food, medical supplies, hygiene products, cots and blankets, basic stuff. But as the San Juan mayor said in her plea to the U.S. government, we're an island that's 35 by a hundred miles. How hard can that be for the most powerful nation in the world?

MARTIN: That's NPR's John Burnett, speaking to us from San Juan. John, thank you.

BURNETT: It's a pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018 and again in 2019, he won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. 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.
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