As It Happens

As Trump tours damage, some Puerto Ricans respond with 'an eye roll'

Reporter Frances Robles describes what life is like for Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Maria, as Trump says the island is throwing the U.S. budget "a little out of whack."
Yadira Sortre and William Fontan Quintero pose to what is left of their belongings, destroyed by Hurricane Maria. "We lost everything," Fontan said. (Ramon Espinosa/The Associated Press)

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Two weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the president of the United States has done the same.

As Donald Trump toured the hurricane-ravaged island on Tuesday, he continues to come under fire for his comments about the disaster and the U.S. territory's response.

At a press conference, he again praised his own government for its work and compared Hurricane Maria to a "real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina.

Frances Robles is a New York Times reporter who has been covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what she is seeing on the ground. Here is part of their conversation. 

What's your sense of how people are responding to president Trump's visit to Puerto Rico today?

I think it's kind of an eye roll to be honest.  I interviewed a few people in the last few days and it was really interesting. They all said the same thing, you know, "Well I've heard what President Trump has to say about Hispanics. I haven't heard anything good. So what can I expect from him here?"

President Trump said "We've gone all out for Puerto Rico ... I hate to tell you, but you're throwing our budget out of whack. We spent a lot of money in Puerto Rico." Do people feel that that's true?

They definitely don't feel that that's what they see on the ground. It has taken several days, really only until yesterday and the day before that, for them to start seeing the actual aid. The food is starting to trickle in only now. So people are kind of scratching their heads as to what's taken so long.

Angel Rodriguez poses next to his belongings in front of his house, destroyed by Hurricane Maria "I was really afraid on the night of the hurricane. But the important thing is to be alive," he said. (Ramon Espinosa/The Associated Press)

And what has taken so long?

There's a logistical nightmare that had to be dealt with in terms of clearing roads. And I also think there were other things that were mission priority. Such as getting electricity to the hospitals. There was a lot of problems at the port, there were a lot of problems at the airport. So I think that there was just too many things for the federal government to deal with at once.  

And do you think they were trying hard? They were doing what President Trump claims they were doing? Which is an all out effort.

I'm only going to tell what I see on the ground.

U.S. President Donald Trump throws rolls of paper towels into a crowd of local residents affected by Hurricane Maria. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

And that is what you've seen, an all out effort?

I've been up and down the island. I went to the west, I went to the southeast. I have seen very little in terms of distributions of food.

But what you mostly saw were Puerto Ricans helping other Puerto Ricans. They were clearing the roads. They were tying up power lines and getting them out so that people didn't get hurt.

So you didn't see what President Trump has suggested that they want everything done for them?

Oh not at all. And the one thing that's been really interesting is that  even when you ask people, like "Oh aren't you upset?"  You know, "Isn't this terrible?" They're really positive.  

I interviewed this lady last night. She's standing in a house that has no roof and only three walls. And she said, "Some people really lost everything." You, you lost everything. This house is soaked, all the contents are ruined and you have no roof and no walls. And she said, "Yeah, but I still have that wall."

You've been outside of San Juan in parts that few people are getting stories out of. What are you seeing there?

I think the biggest problem that you hear from people over and over again right now is the food stamp issue. This federal food aid for the poor. Many people in Puerto Rico live off of that.  

So with the widespread telecommunication and electricity problems, the supermarkets are not processing what's referred to as food stamps. And also many banks are closed and many ATMs are closed. So they have neither the cash, nor the food stamp capability.

What about water?

Water's a problem. I think about 40 per cent of Puerto Ricans right now have ... running water. And the government said it will take at least a month for that to get up to 80 per cent. The bottle water is starting to trickle out, but it's very few.

So what about other infrastructure besides running water. What about electricity, cell phone towers, road ways? Any of that getting repaired?

95 per cent of Puerto Rico has no electricity right now, wrap your head around that.

You look around and you say, "There's no way that anybody can pull this off in any fast amount of time." It's just staggering.

And you say people for the most part are taking this somewhat in stride. They're trying to figure out how to solve problems for themselves because they're not getting it from elsewhere. Is that your experience?

Absolutely.

I met one man in the south. I asked him what's the hardest thing. And he said, "The hardest thing is when your kids tell you that they're hungry and you don't have anything to give them." And I said, "Well what did you do?" He said, "Well I killed chickens." I'm thinking so what. Isn't that what a chicken is for? And he said, "No these are cockfighting chickens." He killed a $200 chicken because his kids didn't have anything to eat.

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

U.S. President Donald Trump hands out bags of rice to a crowd of local residents affected by Hurricane Maria. (Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters)

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