Return to Transcripts main page
Crisis In Puerto Rico; Relief Effort in Puerto Rico; Thousands Wait to Evacuate; Hospitals Operational in Puerto Rico. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired September 28, 2017 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.
We're following breaking news, major breaking news. A Humanitarian catastrophe. Nearly half of Puerto Rico right now without drinking water. Hospitals in desperate need of medicine and power.
Also right now, at least 10,000 shipping containers, they are stranded at the port of San Juan. Inside of them, so many of them vital supplies including medicine. None of it, none of it, is moving, at least not now.
The mayor tells CNN what would happen if she went to the port herself.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAYOR: Nothing. Nothing. Because from a jurisdictional basis, even though I -- the supports are in the capital city and I'm the mayor of the city, I have no jurisdiction over those ports. So, nothing will happen.
It is not complicated. Politics needs to be put aside and we need to get the job done now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We have a massive team of correspondents in Puerto Rico right now. In the coming hours and days, each of them will bring you stories of survivor, recovery, hope and loss.
Let's begin with CNN Boris Sanchez. He's in San Juan. He's joining us on the phone right now over at the port. Boris, give us an update on the situation there.
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Wolf. It is truly staggering to see the amount of containers that are here at the port. Thousands and thousands, hold, as you said, food, water, clothing, construction equipment, things that people in communities that have been decimated by Hurricane Maria need desperately. And they're just sitting here baking in the sun.
I spoke recently to their vice president in Crowley's operation in Puerto Rico and he was very emotional talking to me about the people that need these goods. There are tremendous logistical issues here. There's gridlock in trying to get these goods to where they need to go.
Part of the problem is communication. They are unable to contact truck drivers that need to come here to pick up these goods and unload them elsewhere.
Those truck drivers may well be at home that are uninhabitable. They may not have gasoline to get to their trucks or their businesses may also be in a bad state. They may not have fuel to drive their trucks over to pick these goods up.
There are a series of problems that stand in the way of getting these supplies to where they need to go. And undoing them is a major, major task.
I recently spoke to a mother of two young girls who became overwhelmed with emotion while talking to me. She was saying that her children keep asking for food and for cold water and she doesn't know what to tell them. It is -- it really stings you when you see all these supplies already here in Puerto Rico.
And the fact that they're not moving from the port is keeping other supplies from coming in. I'm staring at a barge right now with hundreds of containers that haven't been unloaded simply because they are over capacity at the port. They haven't been able to move the containers that are already here.
It is a serious problem, Wolf. One that requires a number of series of layers of issues to be resolved and one we may not see resolved for weeks to come -- Wolf.
BLITZER: What are a heartbreaking development that is. Boris, I want you to stand by. We're going to get back to you shortly.
But even when supplies finally do make it out of the ports, it's still going to be a major struggle to get that aid to the devastated cities and towns all across Puerto Rico. And it's also a very dangerous trek right now for people to get out of so many towns that are now cutoff from virtually everything.
Let's go to our Senior International Correspondent Ivan Watson. He's joining us now from Puerto Rico. He's about 35 miles from the capital of San Juan.
Ivan, tell us about how people there are making that journey.
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're going to zoom in here right away on this river. And you can see, that's a man named Manolo Gonzalez from the community of San Lorenzo. And he has just forted the river that has cutoff this community. He says of more than 1,000 people from basically civilization. From the rest of Puerto Rico. This is the main road and the bridge was washed out, Wolf, in the hours after the hurricane by flash floods.
Brad's going to pan over to show you where the bridge used to be. And you can see how high up on the river banks and that the water ripped away huge segments of concrete and has essentially cutoff this community from the rest of the area.
And there is another mountain road that people can use, basically a back road, to get out. But the residents tell me it's two to three hours by car to get out that way to the bigger -- the bigger municipality of Morovis. And the problem is there's a fuel crisis here. So, who has the fuel to drive two-three hours to get out, especially when fuel is being rationed right now?
So, it's hot right now. It's, kind of, high noon. So, the traffic has subsided. But throughout the morning, Wolf, we watched residents, women, children, wading across this river on foot to try to get out to the outside world.
Now, it only took us about 45 minutes from San Juan to drive here. But as you can see, then the road is cutoff and there's no way to get back and forth, aside from travelling by foot.
The residents say that their community has been visited in the days after the Hurricane by a team from FEMA, once. They also say that the mayor of municipality of Morovis has visited once as well.
But the communities on that side of the river, like much of the rest of Puerto Rico, have no electricity, have no running water, have no telecommunications, and, as you can see, transport paralyzed as well.
And they described how, a couple of days ago, they had to move somebody who was in dire need of dialysis on a makeshift raft, drag them across the river. And they say they need other urgent supplies, like insulin for diabetics, because there's no refrigeration over there.
And this is, again, eight days after the hurricane. An American community cut off from the outside world by a collapsed bridge -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, Ivan, what really worries me, are the kids, the little children and the elderly who are in desperate need of basic provisions, have you seen them or were they a lot -- were they able to get out earlier? Or are they, like everyone else around you, trapped?
WATSON: We're going to forward the river shortly to go, kind of, check up on the community there. But residents tell me that there are bed-ridden elderly on that side of the river who are in a tough position.
And here's the most frightening thing. If somebody has a medical emergency, you can't call 911. And there's no radio in the neighborhoods over there, the villages over there, to call for emergency help. And in the hours, we've seen several helicopters fly overhead but we have not seen any official from the outside world come out.
And the community over there, some of the residents there, they, themselves, Wolf, strung up this cable across the river that people are hanging onto when they go across on foot. They've strung it up themselves to try to keep from losing their footing and being swept away.
So, this is entirely a volunteer effort, 100 percent improvised by the residents to try to get in and out from this isolated community to the outside world. And recall, even on roads that have been cleared, leading up to here, it's only about 45 minutes by car if you have fuel to reach this location.
We're not hundreds and hundreds of miles away in the mountains. This is a U.S. community that is cutoff. And we've seen somebody leading a horse across in the last couple of hours. That's the situation that these American citizens are in right now -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, it's a real catastrophe. Ivan Watson on the scene for us. We're going to get back to you as well.
I want to discuss all of this with the retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russel Honore. He commanded the military response to Hurricane Katrina. General, thanks very much for joining us. So, what do you think FEMA could be doing right now to speed up the delivery of this aid?
LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE (retired), COMMANDER, HURRICANE KATRINA RESPONSE: Well, get some troops in there from the seventh transportation unit on the east coast there. Their job is to run ports. They could have been in there since last Sunday is the sad thing about this, Wolf.
Also, bring an Air Force outfit and they can run an air field. They should have been there since Sunday. And to bring the United States Army (INAUDIBLE) second airfield opening so you can go open the other airfields around the islands.
None of that's been done because they've been slow to deploy the military. You know, it took us seven days to appoint a brigadier general and another 24 hours for them to make a decision in the Pentagon and we needed a three-star general.
I don't know what the hell is going on back there. They're using words I don't understand that we never use to win wars, like partners, without partners. No, I'm not your partner, FEMA. I'm a command that you give me a mission and say, take water, fuel -- and fuel and save the people of Puerto Rico.
That's what we operate off is a mission. The military didn't get that mission until yesterday. Up until yesterday, there was only 2,200 federal troops in and around Puerto Rico. That's including those out on ships. We've got to do better than pushing (ph), Wolf. And I'm telling you, after this is over, I'm going to see Senator McCain and Graham and we're going to try to -- I want to work with them on some legislation. Not to never let this happen again because something happened since Katrina. That (INAUDIBLE) Commander Jeffrey Buchanan going in there, his headquarters exist 365 days a year just for this mission. And it took us eight days to mobilize him to tell him to come do it.
BLITZER: Yes, because in the last hour --
HONORE: I don't understand what's going on in the Pentagon.
BLITZER: As you point out, only in the last hour did we learn that the Pentagon appointed Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan to lead all U.S. military hurricane efforts in Puerto Rico. He's expected to arrive in Puerto Rico later today. We know that his first priority, General Honore, will need to be aid distribution, saving lives.
So, walk us through what General Buchanan is about to do. And I agree with you. He should have been on the scene a week ago.
HONORE: And he is the -- he's the right man. That's his job as a fifth Army commander. He's had multiple experiences in fifth Army to include a job as the DCO. He knows what he's doing. He is to set the priority of work.
And then, figure out what damn rules he got to break, Wolf. We never would evacuate a city that knew all this, if I listened to the TSA and to the pilots. The pilots wanted manifests and the TSA wanted IDs. We waved those rules and we got the people out of there.
The next thing he needs to have the authority to command, is he a JTF commando or is he a partner? He need to have the authority to make decisions for the president. President Bush leaned in my ear and said, look, you get this done.
And whatever it takes to get it done, you get it done and you look to the governor and Homeland Security and said, let the general get this thing evacuated and get this thing settled down and then we'll go back to normal stuff. And that's what he did.
General Buchanan needs to get that call from the president to say, you do what you've got to do to make this happen, to save lives. Bring in troops from the seventh transportation that know how to operate all those trucks.
Bring in the Marines. They know how to do clearing of the -- of the temporary airfields and the (INAUDIBLE parts of (INAUDIBLE) have an airfield clearing unit.
And the United States Air Force has been sitting down, wrangling their hands. I can tell you they want to get in there. They can put people there that could run that airfield and 10 others.
Get this, Wolf, in Hurricane Irma, we had an aircraft carrier. That aircraft carrier came over the horizon. It could've run all of the air in and out of Puerto Rico. The second day they could have had a (INAUDIBLE) running the airfield in Puerto Rico 24-7. The military has the capacity to do this.
And what I'm going to see Senator McCain and Graham about. We're going to create a damn law that the next time we have hurricane season, the Department of Defense needs to be prepared to handle three back to back category four storms.
And we maneuver on those storms just like we did in Florida. Florida was a text book operation. General Caillou (ph) put his guard in. The federal troops came in by sea and by air. And it was a textbook operation. And it was a difficult operation. We needed even more than that. Scale up, Wolf.
They need to scale up in Puerto Rico. In Katrina, I had 20,000 federal troops. Not federal workers, federal troops. I had 20 ships and over 240 helicopters. And Puerto Rico is bigger than Katrina.
And if someone from the Pentagon want to call me or from northern command, call me. I'll give you the damn numbers. Because they're going to have to actually report and (ph) the lessons learned. It doesn't look like we've learned an7ything. We are slow.
The issue with the United States is we always do the right thing but we do it slow and late. And right now, that -- the people of Puerto Rico are going to pay that bill.
BLITZER: I've been speaking to military personnel. If you had 20,000 troops helping you during Katrina, which was a relatively smaller area than Puerto Rico, you need maybe 50,000 U.S. troops on the ground right now and at sea, in the air, trying to save the lives of these people right now.
And it's a mission that U.S. military is anxious to undertake. They're just awaiting the order and maybe General Buchanan can give them that order. I want you to stand by, General Honore.
I want to bring in another guest right now Congressman Stanley Hoyer, he's the Democratic House Minority Whip. Congressman, you made an impassioned plea this morning for the American citizens, more than 3.5 million Americans are in Puerto Rico right now.
[13:15:06] Give me your reaction to the federal response, at least so far.
REP. STENY HOYER (D), MINORITY WHIP: Well, I agree, absolutely, with General Honore, who went into New Orleans and got the job done. And we haven't done that. We haven't deployed enough resources at this point in time. As he said, Katrina was a more contained geographical area. This is a much larger one.
And, very frankly -- and, General Honore, I think has said it all, we need to deploy every resource necessary. Very frankly, that aircraft carrier that went into Florida should be diverted down to Puerto Rico now and the air assets and requisite personnel. And what General Honore said, I hope General Buchanan has all of the authority he needs to get this job done.
We have people -- I talked to Secretary Price this morning, early this morning, about people who are dying because of their inability to get to a dialysis center that works. Frankly, they can't get anywhere. Some of the dialysis centers are up and running in some of the urban areas, but folks can't get to it. We need to have enough personnel on the ground working every day to make sure that we can save lives.
There will be time and we ought to have legislation to give the resources necessary to rehabilitate. But right now, this is about saving lives in the face of one of the biggest humanitarian crisis we've had in this country.
BLITZER: Yes, the --
HOYER: These are Americans -- these are Americans and we ought to respond as vigorously as we respond to any other crisis in the world or here on the mainland.
BLITZER: Yes, we deployed the Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, to Florida and it would not be all that difficult to move the aircraft carrier over to Puerto Rico right now and help --
HOYER: And, frankly, we should --
BLITZER: Yes, go ahead.
HOYER: I was going to say, frankly, Wolf, we should have done that days ago. General Honore is correct. I mean we -- yesterday we started mobilizing. The day before that, or two days before that, I had called for appointing an individual similar to General Honore to be in charge of coordination and, very frankly, of getting the job done without having to worry about any red tape or any buy your leave kind of comments.
We need to save lives. We need to be in there with full resources. The armed forces can get the job done if they are given full authority to do so and the resources to get it -- get it done.
BLITZER: And if it requires more than one air --
HOYER: And ought to have that.
BLITZER: If it requires more than one aircraft carrier, send in two or three or four. Whatever it takes with the troops to save these people's lives.
HOYER: That's why I say, whatever resources are needed ought to be deployed, frankly, days ago, but now.
BLITZER: Very quickly. When are you going to vote on legislation to fund this massive reconstruction effort in Puerto Rico? This is not going to be cheap, as you know.
HOYER: Well, it's not going to be cheap, but it needs to be done. These are American citizens. And just as we did in New Orleans, just as we will do in Houston, and as we'll do in Florida, we need to make sure that with the states -- of course Texas has resources, Florida as resources. Puerto Rico is stretched, as we know. They've had great fiscal difficulties. So we need to make sure that we build back better. We don't put in second rate systems that will be subject to devastation by a category four or a category five hurricane. We've got to expect that's going to happen again and we need to prepare for the kind of devastation.
BLITZER: But when are you going to vote for the funding?
HOYER: Well, I think we'll vote -- hopefully vote for the funding before we leave here in the next two weeks. Clearly one of the things that has to be done is an inventory and an assessment of what spending is needed. But we need to do this, I think, before -- I would hope and urge that we do it before we leave here. We have another two weeks and then we have a week break for a district work period again. But, frankly, before we leave, we ought to have a bill that appropriates sufficient funds. It won't be all the funds necessary. That will be done over time. But whatever is needed in the short-term, we ought to provide authority for before we leave here in two weeks.
BLITZER: All right, Congressman Steny Hoyer, thanks very much for joining us. The people in Puerto Rico are counting on all of us to help during this desperate situation. Appreciate it very much.
We're going to have much more coming up on the breaking news. I'll speak live with a Puerto Rican who just returned from the island where his family still over there stranded. What he saw. What he's afraid of happening next. He's standing by.
Also, CNN right now is live on the ground. These are live pictures. Thousands and thousands of desperate people, they want to get out of Puerto Rico right now to save their life. These people are waiting in line to get on a cruise ship that is there clearly designed to save lives.
[13:24:07] BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news. The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico seems to be getting worse. I want to quickly go to CNN's Leyla Santiago. She's standing by as thousands of Puerto Ricans, they're trying to evacuate the island. They want to board a cruise ship that's heading to the United States.
Explain to our viewers what you're seeing on the ground over there, Leyla.
LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All right, we have thousands of people in this line. So let's walk you through exactly what we're seeing right now.
This is a line of people for special needs that need to get off this island. Behind them, Wolf, is a line for those with children. And at the very end of this line, which, by the way, wraps around the block, is the general public. Now, this line is for those who already have reservations. So those
who are showing up here, begging to get on that cruise ship that can take thousands of people will not make it on. The number one question when they arrive, can they get on. The number two, is there cold water?
[13:25:09] So let me go ahead and see if I can pull -- this is Sonia. She is hoping to head to Fort Lauderdale.
Sonia, can you tell me what it's like to be in this -- first of all, how long have you been in this line and what it's like to wait here not knowing what's next.
SONIA, TRYING TO EVACUATE PUERTO RICO: In the line about two hours. Something like that. With the heat, it's pretty bad.
SANTIAGO: Why is it so important for to you get on the ship?
SONIA: Well, the situation here without power and without water, running water in the house is very uncomfortable. And then it gets to a point where, you know, you want to just cry and start running and get out of here.
SANTIAGO: And you are from Scagwas (ph), is that correct?
SONIA: No, from Viamon (ph).
SANTIAGO: From Viamon, excuse me. What can you tell me about that area?
SONIA: It's -- it's a disaster. Almost all the old trees are down. Every house that had metal in the roof, it's gone. A lot of houses flatten completely because there's this custom to build wood houses on top of concrete houses. And the rain and the wind destroyed them.
SANTIAGO: Well, Sonia, we're certainly hoping that you can get the relief you need.
SONIA: Thank you.
SANTIAGO: Wolf, I've got to tell you, what I saw when I go here was heart-breaking. I watched an elderly man carrying an oxygen tank, trying to get inside. I watched another man as he lifted his shirt to show the scar from his operation to prove that he is special needs and he needs to get on that ship.
But I've already been told by organizers here that if you are not registered, you will not get on this ship that will take hours to load. I asked him what time the ship is getting ready -- what time the ship is leaving. They tell me whenever it is at full capacity is when this ship will leave, hoping to get these people with special needs some help in Florida.
BLITZER: You know, Leyla, you were there as Hurricane Maria hit the island. You've been there all week. You've seen the disaster that clearly is unfolding. Is it getting worse? Do you see any signs at all of progress?
SANTIAGO: You know, I've heard the people go, I think we're going through the -- through what you typically see when you're coping with grief. There was shock and then now there's sort of this frustration.
And the frustration is actually on the other side of the port. I know -- it's blocked right now by a lot of the cars, but over there on that side of the port, Wolf, there are more than 9,000 containers, according to the government, with relief aid sitting right over there. These people trying to get off this island and the relief is right over there just sitting. More than 9,000 containers, according to the government, and that's because they don't have the drivers to get that stuff out and about. Because if they find the drivers, Wolf, they don't have enough diesel.
And then there's the communication issue. Because we were just over there where the hurricane relief is, I actually ran into four drivers and I asked every single one of them, are you taking relief out, and not one of them knew that they even needed drivers to do that. So you're dealing with lack of manpower, lack of communication, and an entire island in need of help. The government is saying its reached 35 municipalities. It certainly sounds like a lot. But that's less than half the island. There are 78 municipalities. Half of this island of U.S. citizens do not have the help that they need right now.
BLITZER: It's an awful situation. All right, Leyla, we're going to get back to you. She's over at the port of San Juan.
FEMA here in Washington says 44 out of the 69 hospitals are at least partially operational in Puerto Rico but a doctor is warning that a medical crisis is about to explode all across the island. Hospitals and clinics that lost power, they are desperately depending on diesel fuel to at least keep generators running.
Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is at a clinic in San Juan, made his way to Puerto Rico.
Sanjay, what are the conditions like where you are right now?
SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf -- first of all, Wolf, this number of hospitals that are up and running. We've been out and about looking at some of these different clinics and I'll tell you a couple of things.
It's very hard to know if a hospital is actually functioning. You can't communicate with these hospitals. So you hear 20 hospitals are up and running, you hear 40 hospitals are up and running. It's chaos as far as actually trying to figure that out. If they are up and running, it becomes a question of, how long are they going to be up and running.
[13:30:09] We were at a clinic yesterday, a hospital that basically said they had six hours' worth of fuel. They ended up getting more fuel --