Calls for More Relief Intensify as Puerto Rico Descends Into Humanitarian Crisis

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Calls for More Relief Intensify as Puerto Rico Descends Into Humanitarian Crisis

Officials describe "apocalyptic" conditions with limited food and water and no electricity, urging Congress to increase aid to the hurricane-ravaged island

A resident of puerto rico

A resident surveys the damage on her property after Hurricane Maria made landfall, September 21, 2017 in the Guaynabo suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump spent his weekend demeaning professional football players for peacefully protesting racial injustice, Puerto Rico continued its descent into a full-blown humanitarian crisis following a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, which last week made landfall as a Category 4 storm, devastating the island and U.S. commonwealth.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, described current conditions in an interview with The Washington Post: "There is horror in the streets. There is no electricity anywhere in Puerto Rico."

"People tell us often, 'I don't have my medication, I don't have my insulin, I don't have my blood pressure medication, I don't have food, I don't have drinking water,'" she continued. "The aid is pouring in, but what people need to realize is...we're an island—everything we need comes from outside."

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At least 10 Puerto Ricans have died so far because of the storm, but with dwindling resources, that number is expected to rise.

"A damaged dam is in danger of bursting. Most buildings are damaged or destroyed. Millions are without power, and the communication network is crippled," CNN reported on Monday, after speaking with the island's Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who warned that "we need to prevent a humanitarian crisis occurring in America."

Though Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is sending airplanes and ships to deliver food, water, and generators to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands affected by the recent hurricanes, Rosselló said that's not enough.

"We need something tangible, a bill that actually answers to our need right now," he said, calling for congressional action. "Otherwise, there will be a humanitarian crisis.... There will be a massive exodus to the United States."

The United States has sovereign control over the island, which declared bankruptcy in May after several years of limited support from the U.S. With no money and weak infrastructure that was ill-equipped to handle a hurricane, Puerto Rico could remain without electricity for four to six months. In July, the island's power authority effectively filed for bankruptcy.

When the governor met with mayors and representatives from across the island over the weekend, some described the situation as "apocalyptic." Journalists on the ground report increasing desperation among those who have been left with nothing.

"Many have been openly wondering when help will arrive, whether from local officials or from the federal government," the Post reported Sunday. "The first thing some villagers ask when they see outsiders: 'Are you FEMA?'"

On Monday, many across the U.S. echoed Rosselló's and Cruz's pleas for additional government relief:

Beyond the immediate need for food and water, the storm extensively damaged the island's agricultural sector, which is expected to further burden the island's struggling economy and increase Puerto Rico's dependence on imported food.

Citing Puerto Rico's secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Carlos Flores Ortega, the New York Times reported Sunday that Hurricane Maria destroyed about 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico, a loss of about $780 million in agricultural yields, "making it one of the costliest storms to hit the island's agriculture industry."

In recent years, Puerto Rico—which historically had an economy reliant on its havesting of citrus fruits, sugar cane, and tobacco—has experienced "an agricultural rebirth," the Times explains, but that renaissance has been mostly extinguished by the storm:

Across the island, Maria's prolonged barrage took out entire plantations and destroyed dairy barns and industrial chicken coops. Plantain, banana, and coffee crops were the hardest hit, Mr. Flores said. Landslides in the mountainous interior of the island took out many roads, a major part of the agriculture infrastructure there....

Puerto Rico already imports about 85 percent of its food, and now its food imports are certain to rise drastically as local products like coffee and plantains are added to the list of Maria's staggering losses. Local staples that stocked supermarkets, school lunchrooms and even Walmart are gone.

"There will be no food in Puerto Rico," José A. Rivera, a farmer on the island's southeast coast, told the Times. Recalling the hurricane's growth before it made landfall, he added: "When I heard the meteorologist say that the [Category] two had turned into a three and then a four, I thought, 'Agriculture in Puerto Rico is over.' This really is a catastrophe."

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