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Some Skeptical, Some Hopeful, San Juan Residents React To President Trump's Visit

President Trump arrives at the Luis Muñiz Air National Guard Base in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday.
Evan Vucci

Updated at 8:23 p.m. ET

In central San Juan, Puerto Rico, a policeman waves cars away from a closed freeway at about the time that President Trump landed at the airport.

A few blocks away, nurse Luisa Traverzo is taking a cigarette break from her job coordinating the transfer of patients from other hospitals. She has been busy — Hospital Pavia Santurce currently has power, so it has been receiving patients from other hospitals whose generators have broken down. The governor's office tweeted on Tuesday night that the death toll from Hurricane Maria has risen to 34.

Trump's visit, Traverzo says, "provides a little hope that they are here to help, because there's a lot of people that really need it. There's a lot of people struggling with hunger and no aid."

Around the corner, Marcos Falcon is wearing a hardhat and shoveling pieces of a sidewalk that was ripped apart by Hurricane Maria's fierce winds.

We ask him about political tension that has emerged between President Trump and Puerto Rican political leaders, such as Trump's tweet that Puerto Ricans "want everything done for them when it should be a community effort."

Falcon sounds exasperated. "That's government and I'm not government and right now you can see where I'm working, working for $10 an hour here in the street doing things that the government should have taken care of. ... You understand? I have nothing to do with politics and such."

He pauses. "Any help is welcomed considering the situation in which we find ourselves in, be it large or small. What matters is the intentions."

Others are more skeptical about the visit. Karla Sanchez, a bank employee, is blunt: "I think that it makes no difference in our situation right now. ... For me, it's part of the show. That's all."

She says she wants to see more movement from the authorities to get aid to the places that desperately need it. Just 6 percent of the country has electricity from a grid at the moment. Large swaths of the island are cut off from communication — cell service is working for 40 percent of people. And only 45 percent have water service.

Carlos Cabrera, the artistic director of the Ballet Concierto of Puerto Rico, is also skeptical. "For me, it's pure politics, because the emergency just happened weeks before, like two weeks before. I think he has waited so much to really take care of our situation in Puerto Rico."

Cabrera is standing outside the ballet company's office, discussing how it will handle this year's production of The Nutcracker, now in its 37th consecutive year. "It's obviously going to be affected," he says. "Because priorities change. And that's going to impact all of our dancers, our employees and productions. It's going to impact even what is going to happen for the next season."

At the Sagrado Corazon bus station a few miles away, the sun is beating down on a crowd of people who have been waiting for hours. Fred Hendricks, an 84-year-old Texan who has lived in Puerto Rico for 40 years, blames Trump and the road closures for the bus delays.

"The president should have stayed away because he tied up our main artery," Hendricks says. He is seriously contemplating the 10-mile walk home in the blazing heat. "Trump should have stayed in Washington, D.C., insulting people."

Hendricks says his home was badly damaged by the hurricane. "My bathroom roof went, my kitchen went, my front door went, my back door went. Everything is soaked inside." Now he is sleeping on a friend's patio, but he says he is still happy.

A few feet away, Gladys Robles Toro also sits waiting for a bus. She bursts out into unhappy laughter when we ask about the condition of her house.

It's near the beach — but now, because she was traveling when the storm hit and had left a window open, "my house looks like a beach filled with beach sand."

The day before the hurricane hit, she lost her job working at a shopping center because the two electricity generators there broke.

"It's good that [Trump] comes and sees the disaster that Puerto Rico has to face," Robles Toro says. But, she adds softly: "I don't expect much from him."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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