Puerto Ricans still waiting for aid a week after Maria’s devastation

Story highlights

New: Island is in "emergency mode," governor says, as residents wait for aid

About half of island's 3.4 million residents lack running water

CNN  — 

Puerto Rico’s governor said officials were working to get food, fuel and water “everywhere on the island” as millions of people continued to suffer without the basics and reports emerged of vital supplies stranded at Puerto Rico’s main port.

About 97% of the US commonwealth’s 3.4 million residents were still in the dark Wednesday, one week after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said. About half the residents do not have running water.

Puerto Ricans are waiting hours in line to get gas, food and cash. Gas stations and supermarkets are rationing supplies, while banks are running low on cash.

“Right now we are in emergency mode,” Rosselló said on Wednesday afternoon. “Our focus is not necessarily restoring energy. The energy grid has been destroyed. … And we need to rebuild it. That does not get rebuilt in days.”

Asked if he thought the federal government was doing everything it can to help the island, Rosselló said, “Well, they are. This is an unprecedented event. President Trump has been in close communication with me practically every day making sure we have the assets, giving orders to his team so that they can execute.”

The governor said getting aid where it’s needed has been a challenge because of the magnitude of the destruction on the island.

“This has been the biggest catastrophe in the history Puerto Rico in terms of natural disasters,” he said.

Critics said the government’s aid effort could be improved if Washington lifted the Jones Act, an obscure, nearly 100-year-old law that requires all goods ferried between US ports to be carried on ships built, owned and operated by Americans. The law had the unintended consequence of making it more expensive to ship things from the US mainland to Puerto Rico. Trump said Wednesday “we’re thinking” about lifting the Jones Act for Puerto Rican ports in the wake of Hurricane Maria, but he said a “lot of shippers” don’t want it lifted.

Rosselló said he had not asked the President to lift the Jones Act so aid might flow more fully to Puerto Rico. “I did not solicit that to him personally but it is something that would help Puerto Rico, certainly, at least in the short run,” Rosselló said.

As desperate Puerto Ricans wait for aid, there’s not enough food to go around. In the town of Utuado, Lydia Rivera has started to ration crackers and drink rainwater to keep her two grandchildren alive.

“No water, no food,” Rivera told CNN.

People carry water in bottles retrieved from a canal this week in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico.

The hurricane killed 16 people in Puerto Rico, 27 in the island nation of Dominica and one in the US Virgin Islands. As Puerto Rico attempts to recover from the disaster, there were signs that aid sent from the US mainland isn’t making it to people in need. And the US recovery efforts in Puerto Rico have been markedly different from the recent responses to other Americans in hurricane-stricken Texas and Florida.

Federal relief efforts

With supplies running out, many Puerto Ricans are collecting water from mountain streams.

Harry Torres said the water is all they have for cleaning and drinking until help comes. They’ve heard on the radio that trucks loaded with supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have arrived on the island.

“We haven’t seen any,” Torres said.

Some help began arriving. On Wednesday, a plane carrying 3,500 pounds of water, Army meals ready-to-eat, diapers and other supplies headed from Florida to Puerto Rico. The plane, which usually carries out intelligence missions, returned to the US mainland with dozens of family members of federal employees.

Two military officials told CNN on Wednesday that another 2,000 to 3,000 US troops will be sent to Puerto Rico in the coming days to assist with aid. One official with US Northern Command said there are approximately 2,500 active-duty troops in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. This does not include National Guard forces.

“We are getting help from the federal government, but this is an unprecedented set of circumstances,” Rosselló said Wednesday. “We want to make sure that we recognize that a lot of resources are coming in. They are coming in by air or by boats. But they are starting to execute.”

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have seen fewer personnel since Hurricane Maria hit than Texas and Florida did during recent hurricanes in those states.

FEMA said more than 10,000 federal staff members were on the ground in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands assisting search-and-rescue and recovery efforts.

Trump announced he will visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday, nearly two weeks after Maria struck the US commonwealth.

“Puerto Rico is a very difficult situation,” he said Wednesday. “I feel so badly for the people.”

The President has faced criticism for his response to Puerto Rico, compared with Texas and Florida – two states he visited within four days of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Lack of diesel leads to deaths

With nearly all Puerto Ricans still without power Wednesday, the lack of electricity and fuel have yielded dire consequences.

At a hospital in San Juan, two people died in an intensive care unit after it ran out of diesel, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said.

Residents are relying on generators to keep appliances such as air conditioners, medical devices and refrigerators running.

At the San Jorge Children’s Hospital in San Juan, 12 children depend on ventilators to survive, but the hospital has only a limited amount of fuel for generators, said Domingo Cruz Vivaldi, the hospital’s executive director.

The hospital is the largest private children’s medical center in the Caribbean. When the hospital ran out of diesel Monday, the ventilators had to run on batteries for hours until another hospital offered them fuel.

“We were very thankful for that. We were very lucky,” Cruz Vivaldi said.

The hospital is working to secure more gas, he said, because that diesel will only last about two days.

‘People are starting to get desperate’

Before sunrise every day, dozens of people hauling red plastic gas cans start lining up at gas stations. They need fuel to power their cars in case of an emergency or to keep generators running at home.

People wait in line to buy gas in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.

Some wait for up to six hours armed with lawn chairs and umbrellas.

“If the gasoline arrives, it will fix our problems,” Utuado Mayor Ernesto Irizarry said. “People are starting to get desperate,”

At least 60 people have been arrested for violating the overnight curfew ordered by the governor to keep the island safe.

And 36 have been arrested for looting and theft in Humacao, Caguas, San Juan and Bayamón, said Michelle Hernandez, superintendent of the Puerto Rico police.

Floating antennas and tuition help

While Puerto Ricans await more government help, some companies and a Florida college are stepping up.

Telecommunications giant AT&T is bringing floating antennas to help re-connect Puerto Ricans, said Rosselló, the governor.

And Miami Dade College will offer in-state tuition to displaced college students from Puerto Rico, the college said via Twitter.

Rosselló said he hopes the kindness shown by Puerto Rico during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will be returned.

“The people know that Puerto Ricans are proud US citizens,” he said.

“After Irma, we helped out others – about 4,000 US citizens that were stranded. We gave them shelter and food. During Harvey, we sent out resources to Texas as well. … And now it is time to take a quick decision and help out Puerto Rico as others have done.”

Maria and another storm continue to churn in the Atlantic Ocean but are not expected to threaten the US mainland.

Now a Category 1 hurricane, Maria is 165 miles east of North Carolina and is expected to move northeast and then east out into the Atlantic. Hurricane Lee, a Category 3 storm, is 485 miles east-southeast of Bermuda and will likely move north and northeast.

CNN’s Bill Weir, Brian Vitagliano, Mallory Simon, Eric Levenson, Leyla Santiago, Jason Kravarik, Rosa Flores, Deborah Bloom and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.