Aid Is Getting to Puerto Rico. Distributing It Remains a Challenge.

Aid Is Getting to Puerto Rico. Distributing It Remains a Challenge.

Mr. Rosselló said a major issue was getting transportation to distribute aid to people who need it. He said the government was offering more trucks to the mayors and to the centers where hot food could be prepared and delivered.

“We have delivered food and water, and it hasn’t gotten to some people,” he said. “They didn’t listen, couldn’t hear, the information didn’t get to them.” He added: “I recognize there are still people that might not have gotten those resources.”

The relief operation has come under fire for ground-level failures to provide relief and for its overall approach to the effort. In a number of interviews, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, who is widely credited with turning around the Bush administration’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina has said the Trump administration has underutilized the military, exacerbating the slow delivery of aid and the removal of debris. General Honoré said that by this point, he would have moved 50,000 troops to Puerto Rico.

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Amid Promises of Aid, a Puerto Rico Still in Ruins

President Trump said Puerto Ricans should be “proud” of the low death toll after Hurricane Maria. But a tour of the island by New York Times reporters showed that vast humanitarian and logistical challenges remain.


Photo by Deborah Acosta/The New York Times.

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But some disaster experts say that while the military can be useful, it is not a cure-all in relief efforts, and that too many troops could overwhelm available resources in Puerto Rico. Others note the demands of addressing three major hurricanes in a row. The Trump administration has put an Army general in charge of recovery efforts and several thousand additional troops will soon be sent to the island.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, government officials said they were making progress in aid efforts.

Alejandro De La Campa, the coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Puerto Rico, said officials so far have installed 22 generators, primarily at high-priority facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes. The Army Corps of Engineers is deciding where to install 100 additional generators, and another 300 are en route to the island. Officials said about $28 million had been approved for local municipalities for debris removal and other services.

Still, Mr. De La Campa said, recovery efforts in the interior of the island continue to lag because many of the roads remain inaccessible.

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The contents of a food box from FEMA.

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Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

“We are currently developing a strategy to reach the center of the island,” he said.

FEMA officials said they did not encounter the same issues distributing supplies to residents after the hurricanes in Texas and in Florida because, despite the damage, most roads into those areas remained intact. Once the floodwaters receded they were able to deliver aid.

“With Maria, you had a number of roads that were completely washed out and bridges that were impacted,” said Will Booher, a spokesman for FEMA. “That’s what’s made it much more challenging.”

Compounding the problems, some cities in Puerto Rico did not have enough trucks to haul their supplies home, if they had any available at all, leaving one city to borrow transportation from another.

“Some of them had to leave maybe a pallet behind, because they couldn’t fit,” said Capt. Amado Zudaire of the Puerto Rico State Guard, the commander of the regional staging area in the northeast city of Cánovanas. “The more we give them, the tougher it gets on them to deliver.”

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Food, water and basic supplies are getting to the island, but distributing it remains a challenge.

Credit
Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

But large enclosed trucks that belong to the Puerto Rico Department of Education were seen sitting unused at the staging area in Cánovanas on Monday.

Puerto Rican and federal officials said they had been pushing out the approximately five million meals and five million liters of water that had been delivered to the island of 3.4 million people, largely through an expanding network of 11 regional aid centers set up by the governor. But some local officials said they needed assistance commensurate with their populations — more than the three pallets of food and one pallet of water allotted per day.

“I received 10,000 meals so far, and we’re a city of 54,000,” Lornna Soto, the mayor of Cánovanas, said on Monday. “We need more water. We need more food.”

Ms. Soto stood with a megaphone in front of the public library, where an ad hoc distribution point had formed. The Red Cross was handing out fresh fruit, and city workers were giving out boxes of water and food from FEMA.

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Outside the shelter in Comerío where several families remain two weeks after the storm.

Credit
Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

“There’s no more water!” Ms. Soto told the people waiting in line.

Families walked away with one or two meals, and the lucky ones also got 24 bottles of water. Aida Nieves, 63, received two meals to feed the eight people in her household.

“Well, at least the water arrived — that’s a first,” Ms. Nieves said as she pushed her cart. “That’s for today. I guess tomorrow we have to come back. The people here were waiting, and it was not coming. We were so desperate.”

Other families said it was unfair that there was no clear process for receiving food. The deliveries were left to luck and chance. Those who happened to be standing nearby when the food came received it.

In remote areas such as Las Marías, people said they were still waiting. Rosa Esther Hernández, 71, has been so isolated where she lives alone on a sheer hillside that she wanted to know one simple thing when visitors approached her front door on Monday: “Que hora es?” What time is it?

Like everyone else in the municipality, she has no running water, so she relies on whatever flows down from the mountains through a makeshift network of tubes and tanks. It is usually just a trickle, she said, so she has been taking sponge baths and relying on her son-in-law to bring in bottled water. She said she had heart problems, and her left arm hung limp from a stroke, all of which compounded her concern about the damaged roads and lack of communication.

“I can’t scream because there’s no one here,” she said. “If I have an emergency, I’ll die.”

In the mountains, the scale of natural devastation continues to hamper delivery efforts. In Las Marías, the storm clogged so many roads and toppled so many trees that it took volunteers and work crews about a week of sawing through fallen tree trunks and bulldozing mudslides to clear a path, local officials said. But keeping those supply lines open is a Sisyphean task.

“When it rains for 10, 15 minutes, everything we’ve cleared slides and we have to clear it again,” said Wilver Morales, 43, who works for the municipal government. “And every day, it rains.”

But there is resilience in neighborhoods and among people. Families open their taps to neighbors, share meals and distribute oranges that fall from their trees.

In Cánovanas, the walls and roof of Carmen DeLeon’s house collapsed in the storm, and she now spends her days cleaning up the soggy mess and cooking rice and beans on a gas stove for her 18-year-old daughter and 2-year-old grandson. She said she did not see food deliveries until Monday, when she received a case of FEMA water — her first since the storm.

“It’s been a little slow,” Ms. DeLeon said. “I have food stamps, but none of the stores are taking them. Until they reestablish that service, I just don’t know what we are going to do. It’s a crisis, because we do not have cash either.”

But standing in the moonlight that cascaded into what was left of her living room, Ms. DeLeon said Puerto Ricans were doing their best to get by and were still grateful for the little they had.

“Some people really lost everything,” she said, and indicated a wall that was still standing amid the wreckage. “Thank God half my house was cement. I still have that wall.”

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