SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico ― A month after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, many of the 3.4 million citizens on the island are desperate for aid as they struggle daily to find basic necessities like food, drinking water, medicine and consistent forms of communication.
The island’s capital, San Juan, has fared better than the other 77 municipalities. But just outside the metropolitan areas, impoverished communities in towns like Canóvanas and Loíza are still impatiently waiting for FEMA or any government aid to arrive four weeks after the storm.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, 54, says she has visited towns like Loíza and Comerío outside of her municipality and witnessed bleak scenes, and has called the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to the hurricane inefficient and bureaucratic. She’s also criticized President Donald Trump’s leadership during the current crisis in Puerto Rico.
During a sit-down interview on Sunday, Cruz Soto told HuffPost she has “theories” about why federal aid has been slow to arrive to towns no more than than 30 minutes from the capital. She also painted a picture of the stark conditions Puerto Ricans are facing in the metropolitan area and beyond.
“I have learned in this disaster of a situation many things,” Cruz Soto said. “One is that we will no longer be able to hide our poverty and our inequality with palm trees and piña coladas; and two, that the dialogue, the discourse and what you’re seeing have to go hand in hand.”
We will no longer be able to hide our poverty and our inequality with palm trees and piña coladas.
“Before you could go somewhere and all these green trees and palms trees would be literally hiding away the more disadvantaged areas of San Juan and of Puerto Rico,” she said. “They are raw there [now] for us to see.”
In San Juan, like on the rest of the island, most residents lead their lives under the sweltering Caribbean heat with no electricity to run air conditioning or fans. Many gather inside some of the small number of businesses with generators but head home as soon as the midnight curfew kicks in. Cell service is spotty at best, but phones are only useful if you’re able to find a place to charge them.
At least 84 percent of the metropolitan area has running water, according to the Puerto Rico government website. But that doesn’t mean much for those living in high-rise buildings.
“Because San Juan is a lot of buildings, people have not seen the devastation,” Cruz Soto said. “Those buildings have become human cages, especially for the elderly and the sick. You don’t have food, you don’t have water, you don’t have electricity, so the water does not pump up to the 14th and 15th floor.”
The mayor said her administration has cleaned more than 66 million pounds of debris, vegetative material and domestic waste since Sept. 19. But there is a lot more left to do, particularly since the city’s priority continues to be the well-being of its residents, she said.
“You think when the hurricane is gone and you go outside [that] you’ll be able to start rebuilding but you can’t,” Cruz Soto explained. “You have to make sure you save lives first and then start cleaning the debris.”
On the outskirts of San Juan
Cruz Soto said she and her team have canvassed 37 communities outside of San Juan and 12 municipalities have gone to her directly for help.
“The mayors have come to us and they say ‘Mira Yulín, we have no food, no water, no one has gone to see us,’” she said. “What am I supposed to do? Just say, ‘Oh, go on your merry way because what I have is for San Juan’? Whatever San Juan gets, we make sure to service our people but we make sure that we have enough to share with other people.”
HuffPost visited a community in Canóvanas, approximately 19 miles from San Juan, during which multiple people came up to reporters asking if we were FEMA. While describing the scene to Cruz Soto, she interjected: “What does that tell you? Where is FEMA, right?”
Many officials, including the Puerto Rican governor, have justified FEMA’s slow response on the island since Maria hit by pointing to logistical issues, including road damage and port closures.
“That is the most ludicrous, ridiculous, offensive explanation,” Cruz Soto said of the explanation. “The most powerful country in the world cannot get supplies to [an island that is] 100 miles by 35 miles wide? They don’t want to get the supplies there. That’s a different story. How have I been able to get to these towns? I take my trucks, if there’s a tree in the way we get it out and move it out of the way, we push on.”
The most powerful country in the world cannot get supplies to [an island that is] 100 miles by 35 miles wide?
An absent federal government
When asked why the federal government would not want to get the supplies to these areas, Cruz Soto says she can think of no other explanation for why the response has been so lacking.
“It’s unthinkable that they cannot, so it must mean that they do not want to,” she said.
Though she does have at least one theory as to why the federal government’s response has been so halting on the island.
“It may be easy to try to disregard us,” Cruz Soto said. “It may be easy because we’re a U.S. territory and a colony of the United States. But we are people dammit and I don’t care what the political status is.”
Cruz Soto compared the federal response in Puerto Rico to the one after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where she says the world saw “how the U.S. did everything they could.”
She also said that there are more than 300 people from the U.S. mainland ― including organizations like the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters and the UFCW, who are working to bring aid to people — which she described as the “true spirit of the United States.”
“But why would you systematically deny food and water and medication to a group of people?,” Cruz Soto continued. “It’s close to genocide. And I know it’s a strong word but it is close to genocide.”
Why would you systematically deny food and water and medication to a group of people? It’s close to genocide.
“Rather than dying from a horrendous act of nature, we’re dying from the horrendous inaction of men and women ― of one particular man — because I’ve seen the FEMA people who are out on the field,” she said. “Their hearts go out. They want to do more.”
In response, Cruz Soto said she’s asked the United Nations to stand by Puerto Rico.
“It is a human rights violation to deny people to access to drinking water,” she said. “And dammit we’re dying. This is not a hyperbole; you saw it. This is not getting better as the days go by.”