As some Puerto Rico mayors stumble, U.S. militarizes relief campaign

Army takes supplies to Arecibo, Puerto Rico for hurricane relief

The U.S. Army and the Puerto Rico National Guard took hurricane relief supplies to the isolated community of Carso, Arecibo, Puerto Rico on Oct. 6, 2017.
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The U.S. Army and the Puerto Rico National Guard took hurricane relief supplies to the isolated community of Carso, Arecibo, Puerto Rico on Oct. 6, 2017.

As U.S. soldiers Sunday handed out dozens of boxes of emergency food and water rations in this coastal town, a federal relief official pronounced himself satisfied.

“They seem pretty happy right now. I think it’s going great,” said Patrick Hernandez, assistant administrator for field operations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Just a few feet away, Serafin Roman looked through cyclone fencing at the distribution scene and offered a radically different view: “It’s nasty. People are desperate. They got no water.... Some people are starving.”

The scene put a vivid spotlight on the gap between some government views of relief efforts for Hurricane Maria, and a somewhat testier view on the street. In some corners of Puerto Rico, deep into the third week of recovery efforts, a smattering of Puerto Ricans said they feel forgotten and vulnerable. Residents and city officials often tell drastically different stories about the frequency of food distribution.

Responding to the evolving crisis, U.S. military officials spelled out Sunday how they will alter the distribution of food, water and fuel to many of the island’s 78 municipalities, militarizing relief efforts in a significant way as some mayors stumble on the job.

Prior to this weekend, relief supplies were delivered to 10 regional staging areas on the island, and mayors were largely responsible for arranging pick-up and distribution.

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A police officer keeps an eye on a rapidly growing crowd in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, Sunday Oct. 8, 2017, as soldiers arrive to offer rations of food and water. Tim Johnson McClatchy

But Brig. Gen. Jose J. Reyes, assistant adjutant general of the Puerto Rico National Guard, said in an interview that a new strategy calls for placing 10 to 20 soldiers in each municipality, providing them with vehicles and logistical support, and tasking them with delivering relief to each neighborhood.

“We need to push it directly to the barrio to ensure that everyone’s getting it,” Reyes said. “They will have some vehicles. They will have radio communications as well as logistics support.... They are going to be living there. They are going to be operating 24/7.”

In Puerto Rico’s 10 largest cities, each with a population greater than 150,000 people, city halls will continue to manage distribution, Reyes said, but not so in the smaller towns.

The commander of relief efforts, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, acknowledged that distribution of aid on the municipal level has not always gone smoothly.

“We’re relentless in looking for areas that are bottlenecks,” Buchanan said at a San Juan airfield before boarding a helicopter for Aguadilla, some 80 miles to the west of the capital.

“We shouldn’t pretend that this is going to be pain-free,” he said, noting that mayors can feel a variety of constraints in delivering aid, from damaged roads and lack of vehicles to poor communications and large geographical areas with sparse population.

Some anger was palpable Sunday at the relief distribution scene in Aguadilla. But that sentiment of frustration is not uniform. Some municipalities are handling relief efforts much better than other ones. Among the hardest hit areas from the Sept. 20 hurricane, some are so remote that they require ongoing helicopter air-drops of food and water due to impassable roads.

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Soldiers deliver emergency food rations in the city of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. Tim Johnson McClatchy

“There are people who live up in the mountainous areas in the central region that are harder to get to, but we’re getting to all of them,” Hernandez, the FEMA official, said. U.S. military teams are “doing a phenomenal job with the road clearance.”

Hernandez downplayed the discontent voiced by some of the residents during Sunday’s relief activities, saying that all disaster survivors want to get their lives back to normal.

“Every survivor in a disaster feels that way,” he said.

Sheila Lenox, 29, said Sunday’s box of food was the first substantial aid she had seen.

“This is the first time here that they come with a nice box full of stuff for us,” said Lenox, who is unemployed. “We’ve been eating what our neighbors give us.”

Asked how she had survived, her partner, Jetson Samot, responded: “Sausage.”

“Sausage and crackers,” Lenox added.

“There’s no way for us to buy anything. The supermarkets, they upped the prices on everything. It’s hard for us to find any food. We have a place to live but we don’t have nothing to nurture our body with,” Lenox said.

Another resident, Carmen Santiago, a 67-year-old retiree, said she wished there was more discipline and logic in distribution to avoid having some residents take too much, and leaving others without.

“They should give a set amount to each apartment,” she said. “That way, no one takes too much. They take just what is due them.”

Told that some residents complained Sunday that it was the first delivery of any food or water to the district, Mayor Carlos Mendez disputed that.

“They’ve received it. I’ve come here three or four times before,” Mendez said.

Mendez said relief got off to a “slow start. But we’re doing good now.”

“Everybody’s thirsty, everybody’s hungry because they don’t get food every single day. But at least we take it to them every four or five days.”

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Kenneth Krowel, helicopter mechanic, lowers Petty Officer 3rd Class James Epperson, rescue swimmer, from a Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico, MH-65 Dolphin helicopter to deliver food and water to vi

Tim Johnson: 202-288-9536, @timjohnson4

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