As It Happens

Puerto Ricans will be 'left to die' if U.S. doesn't step up relief, says resident

Leo Gomez lives in Puerto Rico's capital of San Juan. He's been making regular trips outside the city to deliver water to his hometown of Manatí, about 50 kilometres away.
Leo Gomez with his wife, who is currently expecting and overdue. 'I'm very concerned about the conditions of the hospitals, and if they're going to have the tools to manage the pregnancy process,' he says.

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Many residents of Puerto Rico are just barely hanging on. Most still don't have electricity, and water and food supplies are scarce.

But in Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump is already talking about pulling out help for the island.

He has tweeted that infrastructure on the island was already in bad shape before Hurricane Maria, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can't stay on the island forever.

Leo Gomez lives in San Juan, but has been making regular trips outside the city to deliver water to family members who live about 50 kilometres away.

Gomez spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from San Juan. Here is some of their conversation.  
Leo Gomez with family members. (Submitted by Leo Gomez)

Leo, can you give us an idea of how bad things are for people who are outside of San Juan?

Water is not getting to the population outside San Juan. And if it's getting there, it's by the private sector, not necessarily the government. And also there's a food shortage in supermarkets. When you go to a supermarket — even big brands — you see all the food aisles empty. So that generates uncertainty, anxiety, and just a general sense of chaos. 

I know you've been making trips to this town of Manatí, on the island's northern coast. Tell us what it's like there. 
An HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter from 101st Airborne Division's Dustoff unit lands in a field to avoid lightning during recovery efforts in Manatí, last Thursday. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Manatí is a coastal town. It's 30 miles  from San Juan, the capital. I grew up there. My family is from there, and I spent the hurricane there.

Puerto Ricans usually prepare for hurricanes — it's something that's usually normal here. But not this kind of catastrophe. After the first week went by, people started getting anxious and desperate, because they didn't find any food from government or from the supermarkets. So people are very dehydrated. Even 20 days after the event, you still find cases like that. People are not getting food, water, medications, and the basic attention that they need.

'I see a lot of bureaucracy from federal agencies.  They need to do more. They need to do better.' -Leo Gomez, Puerto Rico resident 
You're trying to get water to people. What are you doing to provide that? 
U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel deliver supplies to the town of Santa Ana in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico. (Carlos Giusti/The Associated Press)

After Maria I spent 10 to 12 hours a day collecting containers, cleaning water — boiling it and filtering it — and taking as much as I can to Manatí and providing to my family, to friends, and to people that really need it. It's terrible.

You spend every second of the day looking at your reserves, and wondering where is your next gallon of water coming from? So I understand the desperation.

I started doing trips from San Juan to Manatí. And 30 miles might not seem much. But you have to remember, there is no gas at all. Finding gas is one of the most prized commodities right now. In the first three weeks, you had to do 10-hour queues to get 15 dollars of gas. So 30 miles becomes 300 miles. So it was very daunting, very stressful. 

If we had a Commander-in-Chief that deployed resources accordingly, things would be a lot different by now.- Leo Gomez

I know you've been to a refugee centre in Manatí. How are those people coping?

They don't have any drinking water. They don't have people to take water to them. They don't have their medication. They can't even use bathroom facilities. The refugees were told to do their biological needs in paper bags or in paint containers. There are flies everywhere, there's trash, there's putrid smell.  
U.S. President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd at Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

What we're hearing from the United States is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA — is on the ground and helping and doing their best. What are you seeing of FEMA?

I see a lot of bureaucracy from federal agencies. They're still in San Juan. They have occupied all of the hotels in Puerto Rico. It's 100 percent full occupancy right now. And they're just not doing enough. And if they're doing it, it's just not consistent. They need to do more. They need to do better. 

Donald Trump's tweets have condemned Puerto Ricans, saying they are not doing enough to help themselves. He has said the problems predate Hurricane Maria, that the infrastructure was already in bad shape. What do you say to him?  

Leo Gomez with his wife and dog. (Submitted by Leo Gomez)
 Those are very unfortunate expressions from our president. It seems he doesn't understand the real situation on the ground in Puerto Rico, where citizens of the United States don't have food, water — most don't have ceilings on their homes. And it's very frustrating for us to listen to that, and finding out that the president, the one that controls the resources, does not get what's going on down here.

His efforts in Puerto Rico shy away greatly from what has been done in Texas, in Florida — even Haiti, after the earthquake, they deployed more resources more rapidly over there than here. If we had a Commander-in-Chief that deployed resources accordingly, things would be a lot different by now.

We still don't have communications, most don't have water, and only nine percent have electricity as of today. Forty-six percent of the population lives under the poverty line. This population, they're going to be left there to die, because the resources right now are not moving to these towns out of San Juan. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Leo Gomez.


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