Puerto Ricans hope Trump brings relief, not rhetoric, after Hurricane Maria

A U.S. Navy hospital ship is deploying to Puerto Rico to bring medical care to the hurricane-ravaged island.

GUAYANILLA, Puerto Rico — Ahead of President Trump's arrival in Puerto Rico on Tuesday to view the impact of Hurricane Maria, residents expressed frustration over how the emergency response has been politicized, but hoped that his visit will lead to extra assistance from the U.S. mainland.

"People need water, gasoline and tarps, without the politics," said Liza Minnelli Pacheco, 43, a native of this town about 90 miles southwest of the capital San Juan. She returned to the area from her home in Tampa, Fla., to help with relief efforts.

In multiple communities, from cities to isolated hilltop farms, people here from all walks of life described to USA TODAY what they would ask the president if they could as they struggle to obtain basic necessities two weeks after Maria, the worst hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, ravished this island home to 3.4 million people.

And like Pacheco, their wishes were focused on how to get aid delivered efficiently, not on Trump's feud with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz who he accused of "poor leadership" after she faulted federal authorities for calling their response "a good news story" while people were still cut off and suffering on the island.

"If family in the U.S. (mainland) want to send help, it’s very difficult," Pacheco said, adding that she would ask Trump to make it easier for Americans to send goods to the island. Containers of donations are still sitting at a logistics bottleneck in San Juan.

Nelson Torres, Guayanilla's mayor, said he hopes Trump brings a more organized response from the federal government. One that bypasses Puerto Ricco’s territorial government and puts federal authorities directly in contact with local authorities.

"We want them to work directly with the municipalities," Torres said.

An example of the inefficiency: After several trips to San Juan, with the same request, Torres expected the Isaios Rodriguez Lopez Hospital in Guayanilla to finally receive a generator. But it still hasn't arrived because the paperwork was lost.

"So I have to go back to San Juan to (make the request) yet again," he said. 

High School teacher Sariel Ojeda, 48, started crying when asked what she would ask of the president if she were given the opportunity.

"Help us," Ojeda said. "I hope that he’s coming to help."

She added that her community is in dire need of reliable communications. In the absence of electrical power and cellular service, the only good source of information people have is the radio, and there are lots of rumors and misinformation, she said.

"We would like to know how to file a claim with FEMA and what to expect," she said, referring to the acronym for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ivan Cintrón, a police officer in the hill town Adjuntas — pop. 20,000 — near the island’s southern coast, was waiting at an emergency health facility for his wife’s grandmother to be transported to a larger hospital for heart trouble.

Cintrón's home was destroyed by Maria, forcing him and his wife and five children to stay in a one-room basement.

"I hope Trump's coming to give people hope," he said. "When it rains it leaks into our living space." He said he'd like to tell the president that he needs temporary housing.

Jorge Gagos, an emergency room physician at the Bayamón Regional Hospital, near San Juan, referred to Trump's tweets that expressed reservations about spending on the island's reconstruction. "He's worried about the money we're spending on Puerto Rico — on American citizens!" Gagos said. "I'm as American as he is."

It's not clear whether Trump will meet San Juan Mayor Cruz face to face.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who Trump has praised for saying federal and state authorities are doing a good job, said water service has been restored to about 50% of customers across Puerto Rico. Rossello said he hopes 25% of electricity customers will have power by the end of October. Authorities are aiming to restore power to the entire island before March. About 40% of cellphone clients have service. 

Coffee-farm owner José Roig, 56, stood in the middle of a blasted landscape of scoured sticks and twisted tree trunks. Before Maria struck Puerto Rico, the land was part of a lush rain forest that provided cool humid shade his coffee plants need to grow.

The trees will come back, and the family farm — established in 1876 by immigrants from Catalonia in Spain — is insured but it’s important, Roig said, that Trump see the devastation for himself. What would he tell him?

"We are an American territory, and don’t abandon us."

"When the United States needs us we’ve sent thousands of people to fight, and we have the (courage) to do it. Treat us like equals," he added. 

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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