As It Happens

'Please don't forget us,' San Juan mayor tells Canadians as clock ticks down on aid in Puerto Rico

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency says it won't fully pull out of Puerto Rico after all — but the mayor of San Juan says the scale of the disaster in the U.S. territory's demands the agency not scale back.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz is asking the world not to forget the people of Puerto Rico. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

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The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency says it's not abandoning Puerto Rico. But rumblings from FEMA aren't giving residents of the hurricane-ravaged island much hope.

On Tuesday, the agency said it would soon halt shipments of food and water, claiming that enough of the local infrastructure was up and running.

Then, on Wednesday, after a backlash, the agency backed off, saying it would keep supporting areas of the island that have what it called an "identified need."

Carmen Yulin Cruz is the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Mayor Cruz spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the access to aid and why she thinks the Trump administration has "botched" the recovery effort. Here is part of their conversation.

What did you think when you first heard that FEMA was considering ending food and water shipments to your island?

Well, it was appalling, as it was to a lot of Puerto Ricans. This past Monday, I had to send water and powdered milk to a school in a place called Morovis, about 45 minutes from San Juan. In a lot of the places where there is still no electricity 136 days after the storm, people cannot really maintain their jobs.

The economy is really in disarray. So everyone is really disappointed because things have not been handled the way they should have been handled. This humanitarian crisis has been botched from the beginning and President Trump's administration continues to not do enough for the Puerto Rican people. 
Mayor Cruz says 35 per cent of Puerto Ricans are still without power and relying on aid groups to get by. (Mario Tama/Getty Image)

Shortly after this news came out, that FEMA was considering the end of these shipments, they changed their tune. They actually said that they would not be pulling out altogether. What do you think is going on?

There's a lot of disarray. It's very unstructured. The Puerto Rican government mentioned yesterday that they had no fair warning. They continue to take away resources before everything is stabilized.

Back in October, they said they were taking the army reserves out because it was not needed anymore. Yesterday, FEMA said mission accomplished.

So when you say one thing one day, and the next day you to just turn back exactly on what you said, there's really no structured approach to what you are doing. And a lot of what has been happening has been really made worse by the bad management of the Trump administration.  

There are places in Puerto Rico that are still very dependent on support. How much of that is FEMA aid? If they were to indeed pull out what would it mean for those people who are still struggling?

It would mean, basically, that their life support would be completely diminished. Most of our hospitals are still running on generators. Because even those of us who have power, the power grid is very unreliable. You can have power today and tomorrow you don't have power, or in the same day, you go on and off the grid a couple of times.

Thirty-five per cent of Puerto Ricans, about 750,000 people, still have no power and have seen no power. The expectancy, that the Army Corps of Engineers is telling us, is that we will get power by May or June of this year.

The other thing that we need is a waiver on the Jones Act. Let's say, for example, that Canada would want to send a shipment of some particular aid. It would have to come on a ship with an American flag. That makes things a lot more expensive. At least we are asking for a moratorium — I believe in the complete repeal of the Jones Act. 
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Cruz during a briefing on hurricane recovery efforts in October. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Last night, you were in Washington at the State of the Union address and President Trump did mention the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. He said, "We are with you. We love you and we will pull through together." What did you think? What did you feel as you heard him say that?"

I initially felt a knot in my stomach and then I realized I had just witnessed a powerful act of hypocrisy. President Trump says one thing and then does another thing.

He says he is interested in the Puerto Rican economy and in his so-called tax reform he imposes a 20 per cent income tax on whatever products come in from Puerto Rico.

Yesterday was the day when FEMA said they were going to stop all distribution of water and food supplies. So, really the Trump administration has not done right by the people of Puerto Rico.

We have paid the price. The ultimate price. We were granted citizenship in 1917, just in the nick of time to be drafted for World War One, and we have participated and shed our blood in every conflict ever since.

The truth is that the botched effort of the Trump administration has been so catastrophic that it has really turned a really bad situation into a humanitarian crisis and a violation of the human rights of the Puerto Rican people. 
A man bikes past refrigerated FEMA trailers, which served as a morgue overflow following Hurricane Maria. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Mayor Cruz, I thank you very much for joining us today.

Please, thank you. I want to thank all the Canadians that continue to write to us and send their love. Our gratitude goes to you and please don't forget us. There are a lot of people down here that still are just waging war against life or death.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz.