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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Puerto Rico mostly in the dark one month after hurricane
By Ricardo ARDUENGO, con Nelson DEL CASTILLO en San Juan y Leila MACOR en Miami
Utuado, Puerto Rico (AFP) Oct 19, 2017


Trump gives self 10/10 for Puerto Rico response
Washington (AFP) Oct 19, 2017 - President Donald Trump on Thursday gave his administration ten-out-of-ten for its response a hurricane that hammered Puerto Rico exactly one month ago, as 80 percent of the US island remained without power.

Meeting Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rossello in the Oval Office, Trump acknowledged the massive scale of the rebuilding effort, but defended his administration's response.

"We have provided so much, so fast, we were actually there before the storm hit," Trump said. "They got hit dead center."

As well as ravaging the electricity grid, the storm knocked out bridges, closed roads and made clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing scarce.

Asked how he would rank the administration's response out of ten, Trump responded "I give ourselves a ten."

"We have done a really great job."

When Trump asked Rosello "did we do a great job?" the governor said that Trump had met all of his requests.

But he added that much more needed to be done to avoid a humanitarian disaster.

He said the authorities aim to have about 30% of the island back with power by the end of the month, and 50% by the middle of next month.

But he warned that without hope, Puerto Ricans -- who have the right to live in the continental United States -- would flee the island in large numbers, feeding an economic crisis.

"What's going to keep the people there and keep this going is knowing that we have the backing of the White House and knowing that we're going to have the backing of Congress," he said.

They need to know, he said, "that we can have the resources appropriate" to deal with the storm. "US citizens of Puerto Rico can come out of this catastrophe stronger than ever before."

- 'Not their fault' -

Trump had previously raised concerns on the island by warning that federal aid for Puerto Rico will not be open-ended.

But he indicated Thursday that a mixture of grants and loans could be found to rebuild, in particular, the electricity grid, which was in poor shape before the storm.

The federal government would have to be paid back before private bondholders, he added.

"We're helping a lot," Trump said. "We're doing that because we have an obligation to Puerto Rico, to humanity, to ourselves."

Trump also rowed back on some comments that appeared to blame Puerto Ricans for their plight.

"It's not the people's fault, they lost their house, they were devastated," he said.

"A person loses his or her house and then they can't go to work. If you lose your house, you know, it's hard to go and be a policeman, you are trying to have your family live."

It's been a month since Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico and Samuel de Jesus still can't drive out of his isolated, blacked-out town.

In fact, much of the US territory in the Caribbean is still a crippled mess four weeks after that fierce Category Four storm.

The bridge connecting Rio Abajo to the rest of the island was swept away when Maria slammed the island on September 20. For two weeks Rio Abajo, located in a mountainous region in central-western Puerto Rico, was cut off and forgotten, without power or phone service.

"We didn't know what to do. We were literally going crazy," said de Jesus, 35.

"Those were difficult, desperate days. We could not find a way out, and the hurricane caused extensive damage," he told AFP.

During the two long weeks following Maria, the 27 families living in Rio Abajo saw their supplies quickly deplete.

De Jesus, who has diabetes, needed to keep his insulin refrigerated. The storm blew away the island's already decrepit power grid, so people resorted to emergency generators.

"But I was running out of gasoline to run the generator," he said.

A helicopter now makes regular deliveries of food, water and medicine because with the bridge washed out, there is no other way in or out of town.

People can't wade across the river because it is contaminated with human waste after a pipe broke when the bridge went.

Some brave souls use a precarious ladder rigged to get across the water, but for most people it is too dangerous.

We need a bridge "to take out our vehicles and leave in case of emergency, or if there is a landslide," he said.

Where the bridge once stood, residents set up a system of ropes, pulleys and buckets to move supplies over the river, which has been contaminated with sewer water since the hurricane.

Over the remains of the bridge locals hung the single-star, red, white and blue flag of Puerto Rico and a sign that reads "the campsite of the forgotten."

- Desperate need for electricity -

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello visited the surrounding municipality of Utuado on Wednesday to deliver supplies, but he did not stop in Rio Abajo.

"Utuado is certainly one of the most severely affected municipalities in all of Puerto Rico," Rossello said.

"Our commitment is to give it support and aid during the whole road to recovery."

Eighty-one percent of Puerto Rico remains blacked out one month after Maria struck. Clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing is scarce, too.

Puerto Ricans' main obstacle to getting back to some semblance of normality is the slowness of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority in getting the power grid back up and running.

The lack of power has paralyzed a key industry -- pharmaceutical production -- and most businesses including restaurants are closed or operating at great cost through the use of diesel powered generators.

This nightmare comes about a year after the US government established an external fiscal control board for the island after it declared bankruptcy because of 73 billion dollars in debt.

Economist Joaquin Villamil told AFP that damage from Hurricane Maria is estimated at 20 billion dollars -- four times that of Hurricane Georges in 1998, when measured in 2016 dollars.

Villamil said reconstruction money provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from insurance companies will have a positive impact on the island's economy in the second half of fiscal 2018 and in fiscal 2019, but this boost will just be temporary.

"From an economic point of view there is not much net gain," said Villamil, who works for a consulting firm called Estudios Tecnicos.

He said the economy has been shrinking since 2006 and Maria will delay any prospect of recovery.

It will take at least until 2026 to get back to the GDP level of 2006, he added.

Making things worse, people are leaving the island for the mainland US. Forecasts are that the population now at 3.4 million will go down to 3.1 million or even less by 2026, said Villamil.

The government of Florida estimates that since October 3 -- the day a state of emergency to deal with an influx of Puerto Ricans was declared -- more than 36,000 people from the island have poured in.

DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Risking lives, Mexicans try to salvage belongings after quake
Mexico City (AFP) Oct 17, 2017
Guadalupe Vazquez is standing below the wreckage of what used to be her home, patiently waiting for workers to recover the few belongings she has left after Mexico's September 19 earthquake: some photographs of her daughters hanging on the wall, still visible from the street. The small but spry octogenarian lived in Mexico City's Narvarte neighborhood in a four-story apartment building, half ... read more

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