Riding around Puerto Rico with a truck driver

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THE day after Hurricane Maria clobbered Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rosselló put out a call for truck drivers to deliver emergency supplies. Aníbal Chárriez was one of several hundred who drove through knee-high water and dodged fallen power lines only to be told he was not needed. Ten days later, after thousands of containers had accumulated in the port, he tried again. This time, he filled out a form and was told to wait for a phone call. That presented a problem. In addition to stripping the island of vegetation and flooding hundreds of thousands of homes, the hurricane wiped out Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and many of its mobile-phone towers, leaving 3.5m already isolated American citizens even more in the dark.

“The power lines fell like dominoes,” said Robert Kadlec of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Like dominoes, the lack of electricity and communication set off a chain reaction that hindered the entire disaster-response effort, complicating everything from delivering food to burying bodies. The federal government’s sluggishness made things worse. Eight days after the storm, after a weekend at his golf club, President Donald Trump appointed a three-star general to oversee the military response. There are now 9,000 people from the Department of Defence on the island, along with 57 helicopters and a hospital boat.

Their presence in recent days has helped prevent epidemics and widespread looting. But aid delivery and the restoration of the island’s infrastructure have been slow. Less than half of the water system has been restored, along with 20% of phone towers and 5% of the power grid. Only ten out of 69 hospitals are fully operational. Various government and charity organisations have delivered hundreds of thousands of meals and water bottles, but not to all areas of the island. An overall lack of preparedness on the part of the Puerto Rican government, which is deep in debt, has exacerbated logistical issues. “It’s not that there wasn’t a Plan B,” Mr Chárriez says. “There’s wasn’t even a Plan A.”

Breakdown

To get a sense of the scope of Maria’s damage requires leaving San Juan, which has benefited from proximity to the port and an influx of aid workers and journalists with cash in their pockets. Head west on the Kennedy Highway, where traffic slows, the landscape thins and queues for fuel, cash and supermarkets stretch for blocks. Dozens of cars—some with windscreens still smashed by flying debris—are parked on the shoulder near phone towers, their drivers trying to catch a signal before heading home to more remote areas.

Toa Alta, where Mr Chárriez, the truck driver, lives, is tucked into steep hills beside the La Plata river around 20 miles south-west of San Juan. Truckers favour it because it is central and has cheap housing. Mr Chárriez hauls packaged food for supermarket chains. His brother Jesús drives a truck for a corn mill. They live next door to one another. Hurricane Maria ripped off their sheet-metal roofs and shattered their windows. Forty-six people staying in an elementary school down the hill are worse affected. (Some 8,000 Puerto Ricans are currently sleeping in shelters.) Landslides washed away their homes and they have spent much of the past two weeks lugging water from the river to wash the few pieces of clothing they saved.

The mayor of Toa Alta, Clemente Agosto, says government supply shipments have been few and far between: four pallets of bottled water and one of meals consisting of sausage, a granola bar and Skittles. “We need food and water,” he tells a chaplain, who is driving town-to-town writing requests on a sheet of paper to bring back to San Juan. (“This is the easy part,” the chaplain says. “Then I have to take on the bureaucracy.”) A small pile of donations from NGOs sits at the local post office waiting to be distributed by municipal employees. Toa Alta’s services to its 75,000 inhabitants were limited even before the storm. In February, the mayor cut his staff in half and reduced their working week to 20 hours to address his dwindling budget and mounting debt.

After making funeral arrangements for his uncle, who died of a heart attack while listening to radio news a week after the storm, Mr Chárriez drives out on one of his routes, past the coastal town of Arecibo—known for an astronomical observatory once used to search for extra-terrestrial life but now empty, mud-caked and resembling another planet itself—and on into the interior of the island, where tree trunks and branches are strewn along the side of the road. In Utuado, an agricultural town in the middle of Puerto Rico, hundreds of soldiers from local army and National Guard bases are clearing debris and delivering food, water and medical supplies to houses cut off by floods and broken bridges. (Three sisters from Utuado were killed by a landslide during the storm.)

As the sun begins to set above Utuado, a US Border Patrol helicopter whirrs to a stop on a soccer field and 13 National Guardsmen form a chain to unload water and a pallet of boxed meals. “We spent three days looking for these supplies at the San Juan airport, but we kept getting turned around and told they didn’t have them,” says an agent stationed at Aguadilla, in the north-west of the island. Mr Chárriez frowns at the pallet. “I can fit 12 of those in my truck,” he tells the agent.

Bureaucratic wrinkles have made providing relief more difficult. Mr Chárriez has to have five separate licences to work as a truck driver. The island’s economic woes—unemployment is more than twice the American average and 45% live below the federal poverty line—have led to poor planning and short-term thinking. “The hurricane isn’t named Maria, it’s named Prepa,” says Rodrigo Masses of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association, referring to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which oversees the country’s dilapidated, and now defunct, electrical grid and owes roughly $9bn of Puerto Rico’s $73bn debt. He hopes the hurricane will spur the fiscal control board, which governs the territory’s finances, to push forward a decade-old proposal to privatise the power industry.

In the meantime, the downed grid is the root of much of the suffering of the past two weeks. “We never prepared to operate 100% of the country on electric generators,” says Manuel Reyes of MIDA, the island’s food-industry association. Most large generators operate on diesel. Its distribution is an almost wild industry of 100-150 independent diesel-truck owners who suddenly found themselves in high demand. Though the government ordered drivers to serve hospitals and supermarkets first, a black market developed. Supermarkets refrained from stocking their shelves without a guarantee that they would have power to keep the food cold and the lights on. Hospitals struggled in the first few days after the storm to treat patients and keep bodies—500 people die on average each week in Puerto Rico—cold in the morgue. The problem has eased somewhat with the arrival of more diesel trucks on boats sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Carlos Gómez, the emergency-room director of the Caribbean Medical Centre, says he expects the death toll from the hurricane to be much higher than the 34 reported. His hospital is seeing twice as many patients as usual, mostly with fractures, lacerations and head trauma from cleaning up after the storm. He is encouraged that he has not come across widespread water- or food-borne illnesses.

Back in San Juan, Miguel Peréz, a carpenter from Barrio Obrero (“Workers’ Neighbourhood”) is standing with around 200 people in a queue outside an ice plant, hoping to buy a dollar’s worth to keep his food cold. They have been there for hours. Fetid water has pooled in the intersections and mounds of garbage line the streets. A tree tangled up in power lines blocks a nearby road. Residents say firemen and police refused to move it because of a beehive in one of the branches. This was the Department of Natural Resources’s responsibility, reply the police. Then, at 11:45am, a plane roars overhead. Children waiting in the queue with their parents point up at the sky, where Air Force One is descending to the nearby airfield. Mr Pérez remembers when Mr Trump came to Puerto Rico to judge beauty contests. “He should use those businessman skills of his to help the economy of this island,” he says, inching ahead in the ice-line.