SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—A week after Hurricane Maria caused unprecedented damage here, local officials are forced to contend with a new disaster: red tape.
Mayors are being forced to come to the capital’s convention center, where the government has set up a command center, to ask for help in person.
“Getting here, it’s about a three-hour drive that I can’t afford—because while hospitals are running out of fuel, I’m driving my car around like I have gas to waste,” said Rafael Surillo, the mayor of Yabucoa, the town where the eye of the Category 4 storm first made landfall.
“Do I really need to show up here? They should know better!” Surillo blasted with so much anger that the veins in his neck started to bulge.
In his town, 2,600 people were left homeless. For them, the word “devastation” has become a cliché.
“FEMA came twice to Yabucoa and nothing has yet to be done with our people. They came and collected all the information they wanted and we still await for their help to finally arrive,” Surillo told The Daily Beast, trying to keep composure.
Surillo said Wednesday FEMA’s field visit was two days ago. Since then, people gather in the same plaza daily, hoping the agency will arrive with much-needed food, drinking water, and fuel to keep the hospital’s generators running.
“I read today’s headlines and noted that we are facing a gas shortage, which is silly because 33 percent of the gasoline that is distributed into Puerto Rico arrives through our waters, but our port has yet to be inspected by the Coast Guard so that it can be up and running back again,” Surillo said, shifting his attention to a group of teens who wanted to know the whereabouts of their families.
When it hit, Hurricane Maria took an unexpected deadly shift with its powerful ring of towering thunderstorms toward Cayey, a mountain municipality in central Puerto Rico.
There, Mayor Rolando Ortiz described its encounter with the storm as “a demon that did not stop.” He is often seen in the Centro de Convenciones rushing down the hallway, engaged in efforts to have police deliver medicine and food to the 48,000 residents he represents.
One resident who seemed to be running, but out of patience, was Jaime Barlucea. Although Maria’s eye didn’t hit his municipality directly, heavy rain made the town inaccessible by road for two days.
“Today it took me three hours to deliver food to one of the neighbors,” he told The Daily Beast. “It saddens me greatly because rain keeps falling down on our roads and a handful of landslides have made streets.”
The same urgency was seen on the face of María Meléndez, the head of government of Ponce, the biggest municipality in the southern region,—which has just run out of drinking water.
“There’s no more water supply in Ponce. I came to ask for water because people are starting to worry,” Meléndez said, during her first visit to the Convention Center a week after the storm.
And so did Surillo, who walked out in the middle of the meeting with other mayors, alleging that his claims were not being heard.
“I can’t handle all the nonsense going on here. Diesel and gas are being discussed, but other priorities like food and water need to be established,” the administrator responded.
The mayors’ calls for action came just as Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced the availability of 3,000 shipping containers filled with what they were seeking: Medicine, food, and drinking water. The containers have been sitting in San Juan ports for days, because there were not enough drivers to deliver them across the island.
“Since our telecommunications systems are down, it has been hard reaching the drivers and coordinating the pickup process,” Rossello said. “Another thing that we have noticed is that drivers live in areas that have not been cleared off.”
The governor later announced that the Federal Highway Administration authorized $40 million to repair roads destroyed by Maria. Early Thursday morning, the White House announced it was waiving the Jones Act restrictions, a century-old law that limits ship traffic within the U.S. to American-made and owned vessels. Aid groups had complained the Jones Act was preventing much of the outside assistance from reaching Puerto Rico's hardest-hit areas.
On the streets, people’s claims echo the mayors’ screams for help. Knowing supplies are left stranded at the port does not bring a sigh of relief.
“We see him running around in the helicopter but there needs to be more action taken on the ports.” Yolanda Burgos told The Daily Beast, while waiting in line at a local pharmacy.
“I’ve been here for an hour already. This is the third pharmacy that I visit today,” she added.
Out of the 3.4 million residents, about 97 percent of the U.S. territory was still in the dark Wednesday, a week after the power grid was hammered. About half do not have running water, the governor said.
The island’s official death toll remained at 16; the press hasn’t been briefed on the government’s most recent efforts to prevent a “humanitarian crisis,” as Gov. Rossello described it.
He has not held a full-fledged solo press conference since Donald Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico’s debt with Wall Street on Monday.
There are about 5,000 active-duty U.S. service members and National Guardsmen on duty assisting Puerto Rico, The Wall Street Journal reported that a thousand more were working from the USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill, ships deployed off the coast.