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San Juan Mayor Pleads for Help, Coordination: 'We are Literally Dying Here'

Honor guards carry the coffin of policeman Luis Angel Gonzalez Lorenzo, killed during the passage of Hurricane Maria when he tried to cross a river in his car, during his funeral at the cemetery in Aguada, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Wearing a T-shirt that said “HELP US WE ARE DYING,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told CNN this evening that Puerto Ricans are drinking out of creeks for a lack of potable water and elderly “are sort of becoming caged in their own buildings.”

The mayor, who lost her home to flooding and is sleeping on cots with her family at a refugee center, said that over the past two days 37 people have been rescued from retirement homes. “Some of them have been left to die there — they have no dialysis or nothing of the sort,” Cruz said.

On Thursday, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said outside the White House that she was “very satisfied” with the federal response so far. “I know it’s a hard storm to recover from but the amount of progress that’s been made, and I really would appreciate any support that we get,” she said. “I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.”

Cruz slammed Duke’s characterization as “ludicrous.”

“Maybe from where she’s sitting, going back to her air-conditioned office, it’s a good story. It’s not a good story when people are dying, people are starving, when people are thirsty, when people can’t go back to work… I don’t know who in their right mind would say that this is a good story to tell,” the San Juan mayor said.

Today, Duke visited Puerto Rico, met with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and said at a news conference that “despite working together, I know that the people in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are suffering.”

“We are here, and we have been here to help them. We are continually bringing additional supplies and personnel to further assist distribution efforts on the ground,” Duke said. “The president and I will not be fully satisfied, however, until every Puerto Rican is back home, the power is back on, clean water is fully available, schools and hospitals are fully open, and the Puerto Rican economy is working.”

A Morning Consult poll this week showed just 54 percent of Americans know that Puerto Ricans are also U.S. citizens; those who realize Puerto Ricans are Americans supported hurricane aid at 80 percent, while just 40 percent of those ignorant of Puerto Ricans’ citizenship supported aiding the island.

Cruz said as far as the flow of aid “there’s something that seems to be not allowing people to do what they’re supposed to do.”

The mayor said FEMA aid arrived after she publicly complained and she was “happy” to get a call from White House. “I’m hopeful that things will change … but we are literally dying here. People cannot fathom what is children drinking from creeks, people at nursing homes that don’t have any oxygen,” she said. Thousands of FEMA containers sitting without a means of distribution show the “wheels are not turning fast enough” along with a “disconnect between what the plan says and what is really happening,” she added.

The mayor said she gave critical supplies to another municipality that was told by FEMA that they had run out and to check back on Monday.

Cruz noted that FEMA has directed hurricane victims to register online, but “we don’t have internet — we barely have phones.”

Speaking to reporters outside the White House on the way to his golf club in New Jersey this afternoon, President Trump decried the “total devastation” in Puerto Rico.

“We’re getting truck drivers, because the people from Puerto Rico, the drivers just aren’t there. They’re looking for their homes. They have a lot of other problems. Likewise with the police force. But I think it’s going really well, considering,” Trump said. “…I mean, if you look at it, the electric’s gone, the roads are gone, the telecommunications is gone, it’s all gone. And the real question is, what’s going to happen later? It’s a tough situation. The loss of life, it’s always tragic, but it’s been incredible, the results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”

The official death toll in Puerto Rico stands at 16, though the Center for Investigative Journalism has counted at least dozens more storm-related deaths as the official toll isn’t accounting for those dying from a lack of oxygen, dialysis and other services. Investigators also note that hospitals are reporting full morgues, and some in hard-to-reach areas of the island have already buried deceased loved ones who haven’t been included in the government’s death toll.

“I’ll tell you, the governor of Puerto Rico has been unbelievably generous with his statements. I mean, he’s been praising our efforts. And this is a very difficult — this is a total devastation,” Trump said. “…We have done an incredible job considering there’s absolutely nothing to work with. And a very big question is, what are we going to do with the power plant? Because the power plant has been wiped out. It’s not like, let’s go back and fix it. That’s what I do. I’m a good construction guy. You don’t go back and fix it; there is nothing. The power grid is gone.”

“So we have a lot of big decisions, and you’re talking about — the dollars that you’re talking about are really tremendous. And I’ll be talking with the Democrats, and we’ll be talking to Congress about what we’re going to do a little bit longer term. In the meantime, we’ve saved a lot of lives,” he added. “We’ve done a really good job.”

Rosselló told Fox Business Network that “the president and the administration, every time we have asked him to execute they have executed quickly, of course, this is at a administrative level, it is coming down.”

“The level of devastation that we suffered is unprecedented. As the personnel comes in, as the resources come in, we are going to be deploying them,” the governor said. “But let me say about rebuilding we need to take this very seriously, right now we are in emergency mode but certainly, I call upon Congress to enact a bill, an aid bill for Puerto Rico, that is consistent with the damage that has been suffered. We are U.S. citizens proud U.S. citizens, we help others in aid, a couple weeks ago about 4,000 U.S. citizens stranded, we gave them food, water and route back to home. We need flexibility because Puerto Rico is already under fiscal distress, so we need flexibility at the onset so we can allow government to continue and work on the emergency.”

Trump temporarily lifted the Jones Act, which restricts foreign-flagged ships from delivering goods to Puerto Rico, after noting Wednesday that “we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) said the 10-day waiver of the Jones Act is not enough, and introduced legislation this week to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from “an antiquated, protectionist law that has driven up costs and crippled Puerto Rico’s economy.”

“For years, I have fought to fully repeal the Jones Act, which has long outlived its purpose to the benefit of special interests,” McCain said. “It’s time for Congress to take action, end this injustice, and help our fellow citizens in this time of need.”

“The Jones Act is just another example of a federal regulation that harms American consumers, gives foreign corporations an edge over American businesses, and makes disaster response harder,” Lee said. “It is far past time to repeal it.”