PUERTO RICO — Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke faced harsh backlash after saying the Trump administration’s recovery effort in Puerto Rico is a “good news story.”
“Damn it, this is not a good news story,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz responded. “This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story.”
Since Hurricane Maria slammed into the US territory as a Category 4 hurricane earlier this month, much of the island has been devastated — leaving millions of Americans without electricity and water, and limited access to gas and other vital supplies.
Duke’s comments weren’t the first time the White House’s statements about the recovery effort contradicted ground reports. This week, federal officials and locals clashed on such issues as medical care facilities, aid shipments and the availability of cash.
Critics say the White House has been slow to respond and is portraying the situation in Puerto Rico as better than it really is. Here’s a snapshot of what the White House is saying compared to what people there are seeing and experiencing.
Hospitals and nursing homes
White House: In Puerto Rico, 44 of 69 hospitals were “fully operational” as of Thursday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
By Thursday night, White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said that 51 hospitals had met the standard of being able to “see, treat and admit” patients.
However, he clarified that the three-pronged standard for hospitals included many using emergency diesel fuel, which he admitted was “not necessarily an ideal condition.”
Ground Reports: Because power and communication lines still remain out for much of the island, hospitals rely on diesel fuel — already in short supply — and have trouble contacting and coordinating patient care.
CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta saw those hospitals’ struggles firsthand. At a shelter an hour outside of San Juan, a woman named Josefina Alvarez, who suffers from diabetes, was in a dire situation. She had an infection and no insulin, water or food.
No ambulance could take her to a hospital, so Gupta and his team volunteered to drive her to a nearby clinic.
“There are probably thousands of patients who are in similar shelters with no power, no water, no medications, no way out. There are probably thousands more who are still in their homes and haven’t even been able to get to a shelter,” he said. “She’s just one example of what’s happening here.”
Speaking on CNN’s The Situation Room on Thursday, Gupta said that many hospitals listed as operational had no satellite phones, no access to medications, and were unable to admit patients.
“We’re seeing diesel fuel being promised for a few hours at a time as opposed to anything that’s going to be more sustainable for them. And as you might imagine, it’s very hard to run a hospital that way,” he said. “It’s hard to take care of patients if you say, ‘Look, we have six hours of fuel left. We’re not sure if we’ll get more fuel after that.'”
Because available diesel fuel was prioritized for hospitals, nursing homes had major issues as well, Mayor Cruz said.
“Most of our nursing homes have people that have an inability to move, so they’re stuck in the 14th floor, they have no water, they have no food, they — most of them are insulin-dependent,” she said.
Insulin-dependent patients are "going crazy for ice" to keep their medical supplies cold, Cruz said, while other patients haven't had their scheduled dialysis or chemotherapy in days.
Delivering food and water
The Federal Aviation Administration supported the restoration of services to all eight commercial airports in Puerto Rico, FEMA said on Friday. In addition, five of six FEMA-priority seaports are open or open with restrictions, the Department of Defense said Thursday.
Ground Reports: Initially, FEMA was limited in its ability to deliver aid because of closed or damaged ports.
"We were limited by a damaged air traffic control system, we were limited by airports that weren't operational," FEMA administrator Brock Long said Thursday. "We were limited by ports that weren't operational. Now as those are coming back up, we are increasing capacity."
In recent days, food, water and other supplies have reached the ports. But because of damaged infrastructure -- impassable roads, non-operational seaports and airports, and a lack of communication lines -- getting those supplies to people in need has proved much more difficult.
"We're getting commodities to Puerto Rico," said Long. "The question is, how do we get it to the last mile?"
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said delivering aid from ports to communities is the main problem officials are facing.
"They have got to get that aid moving to the right places. To do that, you need to restore roads, a bare minimum of power, you need a bare minimum of communication. You need a logistical chain," Rubio said.
"There's a lot of food coming in, a lot of water, a lot of medical assistance. But if that medical assistance is sitting at the port, it's theoretically in Puerto Rico, but it's not enough. You've got to get it from the port to the people who need it. And that's the problem."
Delivering aid to some areas will be more difficult than to others. In San Lorenzo, a 45-minute-drive from San Juan, a bridge over a rushing river was destroyed by flash floods. Now residents cross the waters while holding onto a scavenged cable.
John Rabin, acting regional administrator of FEMA Region II, said the agency has established 11 distribution points at various parts of the island. They have delivered around 1.1 million liters of water and almost a million meals.
Mayor Cruz, of San Juan, said these distribution centers "need to be much closer and need to provide a lot more."
She drove 30 miles from San Juan to a distribution center to pick up three pallets of water and food.
"Wouldn't it be more logical in terms of logistical support to get 21 pallets of water and 21 pallets of food, whatever you're going to give me, give me for a week's worth?" she said.
Making cash available
White House: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that the federal government was acting quickly to meet Puerto Rico's cash shortage. "For the last two days, we've been very involved in figuring out how we can get major amounts of cash to Puerto Rico. I can tell you we made two giant cash shipments," Mnuchin said.
Ground Reports: With electricity still widely out, many merchants are not accepting credit cards, making a cash infusion increasingly necessary for residents who need to purchase food, medicine, gas and other supplies.
At least half of the bank branches in Puerto Rico are still not open, according to the Association of Banks of Puerto Rico. Stand-alone ATMs -- from the airport to wealthy neighborhoods -- are out of cash.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that 90 bank branches are now open throughout the island, though CNN reports they are operating under severe restrictions.
Many people are waiting in lines for hours to access ATMs with no guarantee they'll be able to withdraw cash.
Tom Tarbox waited an hour in line at an ATM near the beach in San Juan on Wednesday in sweltering heat. The line stretched around the FirstBank. Customers used umbrellas to shield themselves from the beating sun. It wasn't even his bank, but it had cash and that's all that mattered.
Tarbox, a retiree from Connecticut who has lived in San Juan for 20 years, said he was worried most about running out of diesel fuel for his generator. The long queues for food, gas and cash convince him that the federal government's response has been too little, too late.
"The feeling is that the response of the administration has been too slow in getting equipment and things down here, including cash," Tarbox said, with another 15 people in line ahead of him. "There is sort of a hoarding, panic mentality."