President Trump, First Lady arrive in Puerto Rico to visit, tour areas devastated by Hurricane Maria

Posted at 11:44 AM, Oct 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-03 12:23:08-04

“I don’t want to live here anymore.”

Eyleen Gonzalez, all of 18 years of age, uttered that phrase without hesitating.

Gonzalez’s house in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, was destroyed by Hurricane Maria nearly two weeks ago.

Since then, everyone in her hometown has lived without electricity. Only a quarter of its 80,000 residents have running water. About half of gas stations in town are open, with long queues stretching blocks. Most supermarkets are open but rationing food.

The destruction in Toa Baja is the rule, not the exception, in Puerto Rico, where the recovery has moved at a glacial pace, according to over a dozen interviews with residents, local relief workers and small-town mayors across the island.

Federal officials and Puerto Rican government leaders stress the recovery efforts are “united.” But things took a divisive twist Saturday when President Donald Trump lambasted the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, for “poor leadership.”

Trump visits Puerto Rico on Tuesday, and he may get a sense of why the recovery has been a nightmare for many of the island’s 3.4 million US citizens.

“My people are suffering. This is a disaster,” says Carlos Mendez, the mayor of Aguadilla in western Puerto Rico.

Overwhelming destruction

The Port of San Juan, where much of the humanitarian aid is arriving, doesn’t have enough truck drivers. Even if it did, many trucks don’t have enough diesel fuel to deliver food, water and other essentials. There’s little cell service for those with the aid to communicate with towns, drivers and locals. Banks can’t get enough armored trucks to deliver cash too.

On top of all that, roads are marred with fallen trees — or the road just doesn’t exist anymore. In one town, residents strung a cable across a river to ford it in knee-deep water because the bridge connecting the two sides had been washed a football field’s length downriver.

Meanwhile, hospitals and food banks are running low on fuel for their generators to keep the lights on and preserve fruits, veggies and meat.

Federal officials have acknowledged the recovery hasn’t been ideal.

“It’s not nearly as fast as any of us want,” John Rabin, acting regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, said at a press conference.

Puerto Ricans spend much of their time now waiting in line. On Sunday, one ATM line had several dozen people waiting two hours to withdraw a maximum of $40.

It’s worse at gas stations: Hundreds of people camp out in their cars overnight, risking their safety so they don’t lose their place in line. About 65% of gas stations were open on the island by Sunday, according to Puerto Rico’s government.

The cash crunch is exacerbated because many businesses’ credit card machines are still down, so they can only take hard currency.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Ana Ramos, tears streaming down her face as she waited in line for gas with only $20 in her hand. “I have to wait in line at the ATM because I don’t have any more money.”

Incomplete response

The federal government, initially led by FEMA, has tried to respond to the island’s damage, which Rabin, the regional administrator, describes as “catastrophic.” Three-star Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan was tapped by Trump earlier this week to spearhead recovery efforts.

There are over 10,000 federal workers on the island from dozens of federal departments and agencies. FEMA says it has reached all of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities and delivered a million meals, along with 2 million liters of water, to 11 distribution centers on the island.

But herein lies the rub: A breakdown of communication still leaves some towns empty handed.

Betito Marquez, the mayor of Toa Baja, an impoverished town near San Juan, went to a FEMA distribution center at 5 p.m. on Friday. It was closed and he couldn’t pick up supplies.

Mendez, the mayor of Aguadilla, told CNN he’s been driving across the island, two hours each way, every morning to pick up FEMA aid in San Juan.

“They’re not coming here, I’m going there,” Mendez said.

President Trump has dismissed any problems in his administration’s response as fake news. Instead, he points to longstanding issues, like Puerto Rico’s debt debacle or its infrastructure problems.

The island’s slow recovery may exacerbate another problem Trump isn’t talking about: An exodus of people off Puerto Rico and to places like Texas and Florida.

Over 400,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland United States since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Puerto Rico now has 3.4 million residents.

Many left because Puerto Rico suffers from high unemployment, rising taxes and few job opportunities outside of tourism.

Eyleen Gonzalez, the young woman who said she doesn’t want to live on the only island she’s ever called home, said she had been on the fence about applying for college in the mainland.

Maria made up Gonzalez’s decision.

“I want to leave for the rest of my life,” said Gonzalez. “I don’t want to know anything about Puerto Rico.”