Puerto Rico in shambles, aid from mainland stalled by red tape

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

More than three million Americans are mostly without electricity, fuel, fresh drinking water and food. Most hospitals and schools are closed. Cell service is minimal. Help? It’s seemingly perpetually “on the way.” And, the president is apparently unaware of the criticism surrounding relief efforts.

“I mean, I think we’re really getting really good marks for the work we’re doing,” said President Trump on Tuesday.

But on the island and across the Puerto Rican community on the mainland, there is a growing sense that Maria is the next Katrina, and Puerto Rico, the next New Orleans. While helping to coordinate the Hudson County end of what is a statewide effort to gather critical supplies to send to Puerto Rico, Nicole Torres Bruno tried to contact family, but cell service is so sketchy, the rare connections were short-lived. To her, this work is therapy with a purpose, although the frustration – eight days after the storm – is mounting.

“Absolutely,” Bruno said. “My understanding is that donations are being received in San Juan, but the distribution has yet to happen.”

Xiomara Caro, an organizer with the Center for Popular Democracy, said the president’s self-congratulation is unfounded. In fact, she said the red tape on the island is literally threatening to kill people.

“The government right now has assumed a role of centralizing and trying to funnel everything that’s coming into Puerto Rico through their authorities, to the point that we specifically were waiting for two cargoes of supplies and food,” Caro explained. “We were waiting for it to get here and it’s been in a plane for the past three days because what we’ve heard is that the local secretary of the treasury has decided that anything that wasn’t coordinated through FEMA is declared ‘general merchandise’ and they’re inspecting merchandise one by one to determine what paid sales tax, which is ridiculous. We’re at a point where we have people dying. We have people who don’t have medical services. Hospitals are running out of diesel to operate. We were yesterday in Loíza and spoke to families and ran into a lot of older people who don’t have a way of getting out. They are literally in bed, so we’re in a moment of crisis and the strategy of control and centralization is definitely not working.”

This is an island in the midst of a fiscal crisis. Its infrastructure, once the gold standard of the Caribbean, is now in shambles from floods and mudslides. Its people – American citizens all – left to wonder whether they’ve been forgotten.

“You start asking yourself, ‘What’s going on?’” said Mariceli Gonzalez, of rural Barranquitas. “I mean you say, ‘Okay, we are American citizens and we’re here, you know, and we just had a hurricane, Category 5, pass us by, so what’s going on? Hello?’”

Organizers of relief efforts here in New Jersey say they’re going to keep up the effort with benefit concerts and other events being organized. And on the island, thousands are contemplating whether they should just leave the island for the mainland. For now, though, those NJTV News interviewed say they plan to stay.

“No, I prefer to stay here and see how can I help other people because that’s what I want to do,” said Gonzalez.

“A lot of people will need to leave Puerto Rico, the question is, are we committed to building a Puerto Rico that people can come back to?” added Caro.

An exodus from the island may indeed be in the near future but, right now, it’s hard enough trying to get the lights on to assess the damage on what was once the pearl of the Caribbean, feeling to millions like it’s now a barren rock in the middle of a big ocean.