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Puerto Rico Struggling With Many Issues After Hurricane Maria


At the White House today, Trump administration officials again defended their handling of the response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The storm's powerful winds wrecked the island's power grid last week. Drinking water, gas and diesel are still in short supply, and dozens of hospitals are struggling to reopen. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke told reporters they are making progress.


ELAINE DUKE: You are seeing devastation in Puerto Rico. That is the fault of the hurricane. The relief effort is under control. It is proceeding very well considering the devastation that took place.

SIEGEL: We're going to San Juan now to get an assessment of the situation from NPR's Greg Allen. And Greg, are government officials making progress in their response efforts?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, I think you have to say there is progress, but it's slow. And we're not seeing it so much in San Juan yet because when you come down to it, this part of the island, as hard hit as it was, has more services available. You know, there is more running water here. People have cellphone service, not much power to speak of.

But you know, things aren't as bad as they are in some outlying areas, some of these towns in the mountains and elsewhere. That's where things have gotten - that's where they're working hardest to bring relief and where search and rescue is really just wrapping up right now. So I think that's where it's - where a lot of the focus has been and why it's not been visible on the island to most of us so far.

SIEGEL: Also today, the Trump administration announced that it will waive federal restrictions on foreign cargo shipments to the island, the so-called Jones Act. What will that do for Puerto Rico?

ALLEN: Well, you know, that doesn't mean much to people on the mainland. But here, that has been an issue that's been - people have talked about for decades and has been right at the top of the wish list. They feel that it keeps their rates very high. As one person I just stopped to - on the street today talk about it - knew all about it and was telling me it's just for 10 days, but it's a start. But until we lift the Jones Act, then the U.S. is always going to be a middleman for any transaction we have with anybody in the world.

And they feel like they're always paying an extra charge on everything because they have to pay the middleman. And that's how they view the Jones Act and the carriers who are, you know, U.S.-flagged carriers who serve them.

SIEGEL: Now, you've been reporting from Puerto Rico for the past week. Are people there saying that there's been enough response from the government?

ALLEN: Well, you know, it's funny 'cause I - generally people feel like things should be better, right? They feel that. But they're not really pointing the finger, too much of the blame. And I see so far - when I ask people by the federal response, they say, oh - they think FEMA's here, it's coming. And I ask about the commonwealth's response, and they say, well, we know they're doing the best they can. And then you say, well, are you getting what you need? And they say, well, no.

Here's a guy I talked to, Bryan Kovas (ph). He came from the town of Guayama, which is down in the south part of the island. He drove up today just to use the ATMs in San Juan because they're not available down in Guayama. So here's what he had to say about it.

BRYAN KOVAS: I think the government is making a pretty good job in some places. In the poorer places - not a very good job. But in the rich places like the capital, like in here - of course.

ALLEN: That said, Bryan Kovas and his - and the people who were with him were somewhat critical of President Trump. They're skeptical that he's actually going to be here next week. And they said it will be interesting to see what reception he gets when he does arrive.

SIEGEL: By the way, is there cash in the ATMs in San Juan?

ALLEN: Yes. That's one of the many lines we have here - lines at gas stations of course. Every ATM that's working has a line outside 'cause cash, as you know, in a post-storm economy is king. And everybody has to have some.

SIEGEL: Well, are - I mean are you seeing real signs of progress there?

ALLEN: You know, progress is slow, but it's happening. And I think at this point, more than a week in, people are happy to take what they can get. Power is being restored. Water's coming back a little bit. But you know, most people I talked to don't expect power back in most of San Juan and most of the island until probably November, maybe December.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Greg Allen in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.