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Live Updates: Puerto Rican Official Defends Federal Government's Disaster Response

This live post has now closed. Please follow this new story for continuing updates on Hurricane Maria.

Here's what's happening:

  • This live post has now closed. Please follow this new story here for fresh updates on Hurricane Maria.
  • At least 16 people have died in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria made landfall as a category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds. Dominica's police chief reported 27 fatalities.
  • Puerto Rico is devastated. The island remains without power, electricity, or communications and it could take more than a decade to rebuild its infrastructure.
  • Authorities have extended a nightly curfew in Puerto Rico "indefinitely."
  • An exasperated mayor of San Juan said Friday, "if anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying."
  • In a series of tweets on Saturday, President Trump attacked the mayor for her comments and complained that Puerto Ricans "want everything to be done for them."
  • Trump said he would visit the island on Tuesday, as the White House defended his handling of the disaster after his tweets about sports figures.
  • Other parts of the Caribbean, including the British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands, are still reeling from the destructive force of Hurricane Irma.


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San Juan mayor on Trump attack: "I am not going to be distracted by small comments, by politics, by petty issues"

San Juan Mayor tells @JoyAnnReid: "This isn't about me. This isn't about anyone. This is about lives that are being…

After President Donald Trump attacked her handling of the disaster response to Hurricane Maria, San Juan's mayor said she would not be "distracted by small comments, by politics, by petty issues."

"I will continue to do whatever I have to do, say whatever I have to say, compliment the people I need to compliment, and call out the people I need to call out," said Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

"This isn't about me. This isn't about anyone. This is about lives that are being lost if things do not get done properly real quickly," she said.

The mayor noted Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, the three-star general leading response efforts, had said more troops and supplies were needed.

President Trump is due to visit the island on Tuesday, and Mayor Yulín Cruz urged him to do more than simply survey the damage from a helicopter.

"Go out into the towns where people are drinking out of creeks, or the towns where all the cows and the dead people are together, or those towns where there's no medicine, and hear from the people of Puerto Rico," she said.

—David Mack

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After President Donald Trump used Twitter on Saturday to attack the mayor of San Juan for criticizing his administration's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a senior Puerto Rican official defended the federal government's response to the disaster.

Speaking to MSNBC, the island's secretary of state, Luis Rivera Marín, said the federal government had provided much needed assistance.

"I would not like to believe the mayor is politicizing this issue and this situation that the island is facing," he said. "Without [the] federal government, Puerto Rico would now be facing real dire situations."

Rivera Marín noted Trump had waived shipping regulations to help move supplies to the island. He also said he could see FEMA and military staff working on the island.

"I think the mayor should focus on getting San Juan back in the ground.

"I completely disagree that we've been left out in the cold, out under the sun, without any support from federal government," he said.

—David Mack

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The mayor of Puerto Rico's largest city on Friday blasted the federal response to Hurricane Maria, accusing FEMA of not being prepared for the devastation that the powerful storm would unleash on the island.

After days of devastation on the island as crews struggle to distribute supplies to increasingly desperate residents, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told reporters it had come to this:

"I will do what I never thought I was going to do: begging. Begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is liste"ning to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy."

Her news conference prompted a rebuke from President Trump on Saturday, who took to Twitter to unleash on the mayor.

"The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump," he wrote.

Read more about his Twitter attacks here.

—Salvador Hernandez

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Akoya Emmanuel said she had two choices Friday morning: make the trek into town to find bleach to clean the mold from the exposed walls of her home or stand in line for hours to ensure her two daughters had something to eat that day.

Like thousands of other US Virgin Islanders, the 33-year-old single mother lives tucked in the hills of Saint Thomas, their winding roads still ensnared by mangled trees and overhanging power lines. For residents without access to transportation after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated these islands, simply traveling to receive food and supplies is an all-day event. Many peoples' cars still lie under chunks of homes, roots, and sheet metal, and public transportation has only recently returned and is limited to town hubs.

"If you need something bad enough you have to come out," Emmanuel said as she shuffled forward in line to receive a case of boxed water and canned Vienna sausages from military personnel. "I have nothing. What we have been surviving on is those sausages and that's if we get it. That's our hope for today."

Read more here.

—Brianna Sacks

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A National Guard soldier found dead in St. Thomas has been identified

A Virgin Islands National Guard soldier who was found dead Thursday in St. Thomas has been identified as Private First Class Kyjuan R. Naughton.

Naughton, a 21-year-old who began his service in Dec. 2014, was a resident of St. Croix, according to a statement released by the Virgin Islands National Guard.

"My deepest condolences go out to PFC Naughton's family, friends and the V.I. National Guard," Brigadier General Deborah Y. Howell said in the statement. "My heart bleeds as everyone in my formation becomes my child."

The cause of death is still under investigation by the Virgin Islands Police Department.

Salvador Hernandez

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If grocery stores don't reopen soon, Puerto Rico's government could take over

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that he had told the island's store owners to get ready to reopen their doors, or the government would buy their stock and distribute it.

In the days since Hurricane Maria hit, thousands of containers of goods have piled up in Puerto Rico's ports. FEMA has said it's managed to get its aid supplies into circulation, and the remaining containers are food, medicine, and other goods destined for local shops.

With more gas stations online and more roads roads cleared, Rosselló said he expected business owners to start moving goods from the port to their store shelves.

"So tomorrow morning we should be either seeing a lot of those stores getting their goods or the government will just take them, buy them of course, and distribute them where the needs are," he said.

MIDA, the trade group representing supermarkets in Puerto Rico, said Thursday that stores had struggled with a lack of diesel to run generators as well as a lack of gasoline to fuel delivery trucks. Security has also been a challenge, the group said.

Group leaders met with local officials to discuss how to address those challenges earlier this week, and as of Friday, the Puerto Rican government said just under half of grocery stores were operational.

Puerto Rico's food industry says stores can't get diesel to run generators, because delivery truckers are selling it on the black market.

But an acute diesel shortage — and an active black market — was still keeping many stores from opening and bringing shipments to their shelves, the New York Times reported.

Even at open stores, downed communications systems and a lack of power were keeping people from making purchases. Across much of the island, ATMs were down and stores couldn't process credit cards, government food benefits, or even phone payments.

“You’re broke even if you have money,” Juan Jimenez, 40, told the Times.

—Claudia Koerner

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San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Friday renewed her calls for federal officials to better meet the critical needs of Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria.

Cruz appeared on CNN wearing a shirt that read, "Help Us We Are Dying." And she told Anderson Cooper it was not a metaphor: with a lack of clean water and access to critical medical care, people remain in serious danger, she said.

"I'm in the capital city, but we are literally dying here," she said. "People cannot fathom what it is to have children drinking from creeks, people in nursing homes who don't have any oxygen."

Earlier in the day, Cruz blasted the federal government's response to the disaster so far, telling reporters FEMA is "killing us with inefficiency."

Cruz told Cooper she and her family have been staying in a shelter since their house flooded in the storm. She said the first assistance she had seen came Thursday, when she received several crates of water, food, and baby supplies. But she sent it to another town, where she said FEMA had told residents they could not expect to receive anything until at least Monday.

Communications, power, and life-saving medical treatment need to be prioritized, she said, and government plans need to be adapted for the real needs of people on the ground.

"I know what the US heart is all about," said Cruz, who lived on the mainland for 12 years. "You are intelligent, daring people. So I just don't understand why things have become so complicated and the logistics are so unsurmountable."

—Claudia Koerner

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Vice President Pence will visit Puerto Rico next week

Informed @vp about the situation on the ground/needs/response & recovery efforts.Afterwards,told me he would be visiting #PuertoRico Friday.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that Vice President Mike Pence would be visiting the island next week.

The two leaders spoke by phone, and Rosselló said he had given an update on the needs and response on the ground. Pence will be visiting Puerto Rico on Oct. 6, he said.

Pence replied in a tweet where he quoted President Trump.

.@ricardorossello, as @POTUS said: "We are with you, we will stay with you, and we will come back stronger than eve…

"We are with you, we will stay with you, and we will come back stronger than ever."

The president is scheduled to visit Puerto Rico himself on Tuesday.

—Claudia Koerner

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The mayor of Puerto Rico's largest city on Friday blasted the federal response to Hurricane Maria, accusing FEMA of not being prepared for the devastation that the powerful storm would unleash on the island.

After days of stagnant devastation on the island as crews struggle to distribute supplies to increasingly desperate residents, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told reporters it had come to this:

"I will do what I never thought I was going to do: Begging. Begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with inefficiency."

Cruz's comments stand in sharp contrast to the tone most White House officials, including President Trump, have taken when when lauding the federal response in Puerto Rico.

Read more here.

—Salvador Hernandez

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SAN JUAN — More than a week after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico and caused unprecedented destruction, Puerto Ricans who were in other parts of the US for the storm and unable to get home are beginning to trickle back in.

Nelson Cruz-Bianchi, a Sergeant First-Class in the US Army, was among those on a flight early Friday morning. Flying into San Juan and seeing the flattened trees and brown, desolate earth surrounding the city, his main concern was getting out to Jayuya municipality, in the center of the island, to find his dad.

"None of us in my family have heard from my dad since the day before the storm hit," he told BuzzFeed News. "We kind of all think he’s okay but we want to know for sure."

Read more here.

—Nidhi Prakash

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Storm chaser captures fury of Hurricane Maria as the storm made landfall in Puerto Rico

View this video on YouTube

Storm chaser Josh Morgerman released video Friday of Hurricane Maria making landfall in Humacao, on the southeast side of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

Maria, a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, was the strongest hurricane to strike the island in 89 years.

—Jon Passantino

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FEMA and military officials said Friday they are continuing to bring in federal resources — and working to get locals and others in the private sector to take on more of the response.

Authorities would not provide numbers related to fatalities, damaged homes, or power service, saying the situation remained "fluid." But, they said, federal resources from multiple agencies were working with the local government and private sector.

Currently, FEMA is delivering food and water to regional support centers, where it's then handed off to the National Guard or local governments to deliver to residents. Federal officials were continuing to provide diesel fuel to run hospital generators, and a fuel task force was working to restore service at gas stations and also supply high-priority businesses.

"We’re looking to get the private sector in to do more of that," said John Rabin, acting regional FEMA administrator.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, commander of the US Fifth Army, arrived in Puerto Rico Thursday night and was leading the military's command on the ground. Troops from all forces of the military were continuing to join the response of Puerto Rico's National Guard and Army Reserve, he said.

"I can't give you a total number," he said. "I can tell you DOD is committed to continue to bring people in as long as there's a need."

As of Friday, Rabin said there were no FEMA commodities being held up in San Juan's port, where earlier this week thousands of containers sat idle because of a lack of truck drivers and cleared roads. But getting to the interior of the island remained a challenge with downed power lines, washed out bridges, and blocked roads.

Buchanan said the military would be doing some of the work to address those issues, but he also planned to use federal funds for paying local contractors — pumping funds into the local economy.

"It's actually better for the long-term recovery than just using military forces," he said.

As fuel continues to become more available on the island — federal workers were providing security to allow fuel trucks to work 24 hours a day — Rabin added the private sector supply chain is coming back to life. He added FEMA would be working with the Army Corps of Engineers and other Department of Defense partners to map road infrastructure and ensure no areas of the island were totally cut off from supplies.

"We've got a full federal family down here working to help our fellow citizens of Puerto Rico," he said.

—Claudia Koerner

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Trump says Puerto Rico is facing total devastation, but that 'it's going really well, considering'

"The loss of life, it's always tragic. But it's been incredible. The results that we've had with respect to loss of…

President Trump praised his administration's response to Puerto Rico while speaking to reporters Friday, even though he said the island is facing, "total devastation."

"I think it's going really well, considering," Trump told reporters. "If you look at it, the electricity is gone, roads are gone, the telecommunications is gone. It's all gone."

Trump's comments seemed to try to echo the theme of other White House officials who have been praising and commending the response of federal agencies after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico even though, by the president's own comments, people in the island are facing dire situations.

"The loss of life, it's always tragic, but it's been incredible," Trump said. "The results we've had, with respect to los of life. People can't believe how successful that has been relatively speaking."

Still, even Trump seemed unable to avoid the challenges facing federal and local officials.

"It's a whole different level nobody's even seen, when you have a Category-5 wipe out an island like this," Trump said. "You have nothing. You don't have roads. You don't have anything, and you don't have the people to even operate the equipment."

Hurricane Maria, in fact, struck Puerto Rico as a Category-4 hurricane.

Trump also said the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Roselló, has praised the administration's response.

"We have done an incredible job considering there is nothing to work with," Trump said.

“We don’t have a supply chain that is working”

Local officials in Puerto Rico have disagreed with Trump's assessment and that of other administration officials.

"I respectfully disagree with president Trump, and I'm sure that he isn' getting the data that we are seeing in the streets," San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulí Cruz told reporters in a press conference. "He knows that if the supply chain does not work, things do not work."

Local mayor have spoken out about the difficulty in getting supplies to many communities, and their assessment of FEMA's response after the hurricane stands in stark contrast with what Trump and White House officials have said.

"They were not prepared for this," Cruz said at the press conference. "People are drinking from the creek."

—Salvador Hernandez

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"The situation in Puerto Rico is not satisfactory:" DHS Acting Secretary responds to backlash against earlier comments

"Cleary the situation here in Puerto not satisfactory," DHS Acting Sec. Duke says, responding to criticis…

Elaine Duke, the Department of Homeland Security's acting secretary, responded Friday to the backlash against earlier comments where she said she was satisfied with the US government response to the devastation in Puerto Rico.

"Clearly, the situation here in Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane is not satisfactory," Duke said at a press conference after arriving on the ravaged island on Friday.

"But together we are getting there, and the progress today is very, very strong," she said.

Duke's comments came after San Juan's mayor blasted her for saying Thursday that the government response to the hurricane was "a good news story" and that she was "very satisfied" with the relief efforts.

"Yesterday I was asked if I was happy and satisfied with the recovery," Duke said at the news conference, accompanied by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello. "I am proud of the work that's being done. I am proud of Americans helping Americans."

"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 freely available, schools and hospitals are fully open and the Puerto Rican economy is working," she added.

Duke stated that Trump sent her to Puerto Rico and that she "needed to see it in person" to make sure the county had the assets it needed for recovery.

"Despite working together, I know that the people in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are suffering. We are here, and we have been here to help them," she said.

— Tasneem Nashrulla

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The USNS Comfort left Norfolk, Virginia, on Friday afternoon and was headed to Puerto Rico to provide medical care to the hurricane-ravaged island. The journey is expected to take five days.

In a press briefing prior to the ship's departure on Friday, the commanding officer of the ship's hospital, Capt. Kevin D. Buckley, said that the nearly 900-person crew is "really eager to help" the people of Puerto Rico.

The USNS Comfort and its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, are the world's largest floating hospitals and at full capacity in a combat mission can provide 1,000 beds, including 80 intensive care beds. Each vessel has an emergency room, 12 operating rooms, and every other facility that you would find at a US hospital.

Buckley said that the ship's personnel and operations have been specifically tailored to provide humanitarian assistance to Puerto Rico. "In combat, we don't bring OBGYN doctors and pediatricians," he said. For this mission, the ship's crew consists of 522 medical personnel and more than 300 corpsmen who are responsible for the vessel's day-to-day operations. Comfort also will bring much-needed medical supplies to Puerto Rico, including 5,000 units of blood. Upon arrival, the ship will operate six of its operating rooms and provide 200 beds and 50 ICU beds.

"We don't know what we're going to be tasked with, we don't know what the medical ask is, that's [a decision] by higher-up national authorities," Buckley said, adding that the crew is eager to go wherever they are needed and provide whatever assistance is necessary.

The Trump administration made the decision to send the hospital ship two days ago amidst criticism of its lack of response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and a pointed tweet from Hillary Clinton that specifically said that Comfort should be deployed.

Ellie Hall

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Trump says the federal government is "engaged fully" in the disaster in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands

Before speaking to the American Manufacturers' Association Friday, President Trump said he was sending his prayers to the people of Puerto Rico and stressed the federal government's efforts to address the crisis, including 10,000 National Guard personnel on the ground.

"All appropriate departments of our government from homeland security to defense are engaged fully in the disaster, and the response and recovery effort probably has never been seen for something like this," he said. "This is an island surrounded by water, big — with the territory and local governments which are unfortunately not able to handle this crisis on their own — just totally unable to."

Trump described a lack of police and truck drivers and an electrical grid and infrastructure in "poor shape," before saying, "We will have to start all over again."

"Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort will end up," he said, adding it would be "one of the biggest re-buildings ever."

The president said the government will also have to determine how to handle the island's existing debt.

"We will not rest until the people of Puerto Rico are safe," said Trump. "These are great people. We want them to be safe and sound and secure and we will be there every day until that happens."

—Cora Lewis

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Puerto Rico's local mayors are the front line of relief efforts as they wait for the government

SAN JUAN — More than week after Hurricane Maria smashed through Puerto Rico, leaving at least 16 people dead, the island barely has reliable electricity, clean water, and telecommunications — all while suffering from security concerns. With the American federal government being criticized for a slow response, it has been up to the mayors of Puerto Rico to help the island and keep order and pressure on higher officials amid the devastation.

The metropolitan area of San Juan — which comprises the municipalities of San Juan, Guaynabo, Bayamón, Toa Baja, Carolina, Trujillo Alto and Cataño — is mostly still standing. There is still no electricity to speak of in the majority of those areas, except pockets of communities around hospitals that have begun to receive service from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (AEE or PREPA).

For residents of the island — who are US citizens — shock, despair, and questions of why are setting in. The moment feels like their 9/11, with people’s lives changed forever.

Read more here.

-- Edwin Jusino

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Mayor of San Juan: "This is a life-or-death story. This is the story of a devastation that continues to worsen"

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz blasted the acting director of Homeland Security Friday for calling the government response to the hurricane a "good news story" and saying she was "very satisfied" with the administration's "ability to reach people."

"Well, maybe from where she's standing it's a good news story. When you are drinking from a creek, it's not a good news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good news story... This is a people are dying story. This is a life or death story. This is a there's a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water," Cruz said on CNN.

Cruz called the statement "irresponsible" and asked that Duke come visit the towns that had been devastated on the island and the residents who lacked medical care.

"It's not a good news story when people are dying when they don't have dialysis, and when the generators aren't working, and the oxygen is not provided for them," she said. "Where is there good news here? The good news is we are getting heard."

San Juan mayor reacts to Homeland Security chief calling Puerto Rico a "good news" story: "This is a people are dyi…

The mayor asked that the White House use San Juan as a more effective point of distribution, using drones and parachutes to deliver aid, including drinking water. She thanked the president for calling San Juan, but said there are "77 other towns that are waiting anxiously" for help.

"This is not about water that's warm so you can take a bath," she said. "This is about water that is drinkable so you can save a life."

Communications on the island remained badly inhibited, according to the mayor. Given the dire circumstances, reaching nursing homes and homes for the elderly is a top priority, she said, "because they are becoming just human cages for people that are sick and unable to fend for themselves."

"It's a logistics nightmare they did not anticipate," said Cruz, of the federal government's response. "Let's fix it."

-- Cora Lewis

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Puerto Rico's creditors face a big choice: harden stance or soften?

A New York–based hedge fund, Aurelius Capital, that owns about $470 million worth of Puerto Rican bonds is still looking to argue in court in November that the board overseeing the island's massive bankruptcy is unconstitutional — meaning that Aurelius should be paid back more promptly — despite the government's fiscal situation looking even worse following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Another group of bondholders is taking a more constructive route: It has offered to lend Puerto Rico's bankrupt electric utility, Prepa, $1 billion so that the utility can request more funds from FEMA for reconstruction. In return, those bondholders would give up $1 billion of their current bonds for $850 million of new ones that had higher priority for repayment from the utility. That case is also working its way through federal court.

Other than the loan offer to Prepa — which needs to be approved by a judge — the hedge funds and other financiers that own billions of dollars of the island's bonds have largely stayed mute throughout the still-unfurling humanitarian disaster on the island. Before Hurricane Maria struck, the bondholders had been haggling for every last penny they could get through a court-governed bankruptcy-like process that was set up through a law passed earlier this year called Promesa.

Now, the devastation caused by Maria will likely reduce even further the amount of money that government can make available to the debt holders — and its willingness to make repayment a priority, given the myriad urgent needs.

Read more here.

-- Matthew Zeitlin

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Trump tweets "big decisions will have to be made" as to the cost of rebuilding Puerto Rico

After the president and the federal government faced criticism this week for their slow response in providing relief to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, President tweeted praise for his administration from the Ricardo Rosselló, governor of Puerto Rico, adding that "big decisions have to be made" regarding the cost of rebuilding the islands going forward.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello just stated: "The Administration and the President, every time we've spoken, they've delivered......

...The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!

Rosselló made the comment on Fox and Friends in the early morning.

Thursday, after repeated requests from the governor, the president waived the Jones Act for 10 days, a maritime law Rosselló said had been restricting the shipping of aid to the island, by imposing tariffs.

In a press briefing, also Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the federal response to the crisis in the Caribbean, calling it "textbook" and "done well."

-- Cora Lewis

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SAINT THOMAS, US VIRGIN ISLANDS — First came Hurricane Irma, battering St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Less than two weeks later came Maria, again hitting the island’s homes, infrastructure, and wrecking its two hospitals.

Surrounded by army vehicles, massive piles of debris, and mangled palm trees, Schneider Regional Medical, like the rest of the island, looks like it survived a bombing.

“People either survive or they don't in these situations,” said Dr. Brian Bacot, who has seen around 200 patients and has performed more than 15 surgeries since the hurricanes arrived. Bacot — an orthopedic surgeon who works in part at Schneider and at his own private practice — is now just taking anyone who comes to him in need.

Built in the early 1980s and the only hospital on St. Thomas, the facility was struggling to pay its bills, obtain medication, and refurbish its aging wings before the battering storms. Now, a majority of its floors lie stripped and damaged, wires hang from the ceiling, and mounds of paperwork still sit piled atop dusty, wrecked desks.

Meanwhile, green army tents are being set up outside to house displaced patients, perform operations, and help alleviate the flow of people seeking medical attention.

“It’s surreal looking,” he said during a break between seeing patients.

Read more here.

—Brianna Sacks

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WASHINGTON – From the 8th floor of a downtown Washington, DC, office building, seven people are the sole link between frantic callers on the mainland and loved ones they haven’t heard from since Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico.

A few hours with them underscores the chaos that is the Puerto Rico relief effort.

On one side of the long wooden table inside the conference room, Jose Gosende, 39, a volunteer from Virginia, was speaking with a woman trying to track down a sick uncle who was bedridden.

“I know it’s difficult but it’s important to remain calm,” Gosende said, scratching the back of his head through his dark brown hair. “My dad lives over there, too, and I haven’t heard from him in a week.”

Last week, the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, Puerto Rico's representative office in Washington, became the main point of contact between the island and officials in DC. With communications to the island virtually nonexistent, the office launched a helpline to coordinate donations and help people contact friends or family. They idea was to take down caller’s information and enter it into a database that would be shared with authorities on the island who would try to locate people – with priority given to those with urgent medical needs.

From the beginning, the phones never stopped ringing.

Read more here.

—Adolfo Flores

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The White House tried to defend itself Thursday afternoon over criticisms of its delayed handling of aid to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

At a press briefing, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert addressed complaints raised by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who chartered a plane to Puerto Rico full of supplies and accused the federal government of mismanagement.

"Thank you for providing aid but you're wrong," said Bossert.

"I would challenge you to get a better understanding before rendering that verdict on what we've done, what we have been doing, and how blown away you will be when you see the full totality of the picture," Bossert continued. "I'm sure the mayor has had some positive experiences, I wouldn't be critical of him personally, but he is probably, just like with the Jones Act criticism he rendered, just not yet informed on the facts."

Bossert also rebuffed questions over why Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, a three-star general, was only appointed to lead the effort in Puerto Rico on Thursday.

"Because it didn't require a three-star general eight days ago," replied Bossert.

When asked by a reporter if it was a mistake to not have appointed a general sooner, Bossert replied, "No, not at all... this is textbook and it's been done well."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also addressed the response in Puerto Rico, declaring: "The full weight of the United States government is engaged to ensure that food, water, health care and other life saving resources are making it to the people in need."

Sanders said 10,000 federal relief workers, including 7,200 troops, are now on the island and that 44 of the island's 69 hospitals are now fully operational.

"Our message to the incredible people of Puerto Rico is this: the president is behind you, we all are, the entire country. Your unbreakable spirit is an inspiration to us all. We are praying for you and working for you and we will not let you down," said Sanders.

— Amber Jamieson

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FEMA and military officials said Thursday that damaged roads and lack of communication are hampering efforts to reach those in need of help in Puerto Rico.

"Hurricane Maria was, and I will not mince words, a catastrophic storm," John Rabin, regional administrator for FEMA, said in a call with reporters. "The impact on US citizens who live here is tremendous."

Many parts of the island continue to lack communication systems, forcing FEMA officials to communicate with leaders of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities by "driving through the woods, cutting paths" and using four-wheel drive vehicles to reach some areas of the island.

Despite the challenges, Rabin said officials have contacted and distributed 2.4 million meals and 1.7 million bottles of water in total to all 78 municipalities in the island.

The lack of drivers and diesel fuel, which hampered distribution efforts in the initial days after Hurricane Maria, has also been alleviated, said Alex de la Campa, FEMA director of the Caribbean.

Most main roads have been opened to delivery trucks, he said, and local officials will be coordinating with the US Army Corps of Engineers and other Department of Defense officials to help clear and repair smaller roads.

To help distribution efforts, FEMA and the Department of Defense, along with Puerto Rico's National Guard, have set up 11 distribution centers throughout the island, where representatives from local governments will be able to pick up food, water, and other supplies daily to distribute to their communities.

As of Thursday, Rabin said 676 gas stations had also been reopened to ease the distribution of fuel, compared to just 300 stations three days ago.

Puerto Rico's government has also identified 29 hospitals on the island that will receive all current patients.

Officials were unable, however, to provide a timeline on whether other issues facing Puerto Rico's residents might be resolved.

Officials, however, were not able to provide a timeline on when communications systems and electricity would be fully restored, or when people staying in shelters would be given more long-term housing.

—Salvador Hernandez

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Rubio calls for military to take over aid distribution in Puerto Rico

Conditions in parts of #PuertoRico getting worse. The main problem is a logistical one, the distribution of aid beyond #SanJuan 1/2

Likely need the @DeptofDefense to address some "battlefield" like logistical challenges in #PuertoRico.This will NOT improve on its own 2/2

Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday said conditions in some parts of Puerto Rico were getting worse, and he urged the Department of Defense to take over aid operations.

"Likely need the @DeptofDefense to address some 'battlefield' like logistical challenges in #PuertoRico.This will NOT improve on its own," the Florida Republican tweeted.

Rubio expanded on his comments to CNN, saying that the powerful one-two-punch of hurricanes Irma and Maria, plus existing infrastructure challenges on the island, had created a unique crisis that authorities could not handle via traditional multiagency responses.

"The supply chain, the logistical chain on the island is broken, it isn't working because of the storm and other challenges and it needs to be restored," he said. "In my view, the only people who can restore it, who have the capacity to do so quickly in the short term and then turn it over to the authorities there in Puerto Rico is the Department of Defense. They are logistical experts."

The Army Corps of Engineers was already on the ground to restore power lines, but Rubio said military expertise was also needed to bring back roads, bridges, and communications.

A lack of reliable communication methods has made coordination among local officials nearly impossible, Rubio added. And getting necessary transportation and crews in place for recovery has been more complicated than on the US mainland, where aid could simply be driven in from a neighboring state, he said.

"The need is greater, and the type of need is different," he said. "It's much more logistical at this point, and only the DOD, in my view, has the capacity to take charge of that and restore it in the short term."

When asked by CNN if aid operations should be put in the hands of a general, FEMA Administrator Brock Long said the media wasn't giving enough attention to existing aid efforts.

"A sustainment force of DOD was deployed several days ago and there are things coming in, there's a press conference that was held this morning in Puerto Rico with General Kim, Admiral Hughes, my staff, and the governor to talk jointly where we are versus where we need to be that was not picked up by major media networks across the country this morning," he said.

—Claudia Koerner

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Eight flights operated by the Department of Defense are scheduled to land in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands Thursday, delivering food and water, power generation capabilities, medical supplies, and communications support, officials said.

In Puerto Rico, one plane is delivering a generator to support radar approach control flight operations, which will increase the number of flights able to travel in and out of San Juan International Airport and surrounding airfields.

A second plane is delivering a US Coast Guard Mobile Medical Unit to help respond to emergencies, and a Royal Canadian Air Force plane is delivering a US Civil Affairs Information Support Element to help disseminate public information.

A final plane is delivering the Federal Aviation Administration's initial response team from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, to provide airfield support with personnel, generators, and heavy duty trucks.

In the US Virgin Islands, a plane carrying 10 support personnel and 33 tons of equipment is scheduled to land on the island of Saint Thomas, and three planes are arriving in Saint Croix with 22 pallets of bottled water and 25 pallets of meals able to support 250,000 residents.

Marines continue to operate from Roosevelt Roads Airfield in Puerto Rico, clearing roads, and distributing commodities and fuel, officials said, as well as providing helicopter support to officials assessing all Puerto Rican hospitals.

—Cora Lewis

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The former general in charge of coordinating military relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans took the Trump administration to task on Thursday for its response to the Puerto Rico disaster.

"I don't know what the hell is going on back there," Former Lt. General Russel Honore said on CNN. "They're using words I don't understand."

Honore served as commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina, and is widely credited with salvaging the original bungled FEMA and government response to Katrina.

Honore said that one of the reasons he was so effective was because former President Bush gave him authority to execute all requests and needs without delays.

Lt. General Jeffrey Buchanan, who was appointed on Wednesday to lead military recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, needs a similar nod from President Trump in the coming days to turn around a deteriorating situation, Honore added.

"General Buchanan needs to get that call from the president that says, 'You do what you have to do to make it happen and save lives,'" Honore said. "Puerto Rico is bigger than Katrina."

"It doesn't look like we've learned anything. We're slow," Honore added. "The issue with the United States is we always do the right thing, but we do it slow and late. And right now the people of Puerto Rico are going to pay that bill."

—Talal Ansari

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The federal government has waived shipping restrictions under the Jones Act in Puerto Rico to help reduce the cost of sending aid to the hurricane ravaged island.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted the news on Thursday morning, saying President Trump had authorized the waiver after a request from the island's governor, Ricardo Rossello.

At @ricardorossello request, @POTUS has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately.

It was a switch from the president's comments on Wednesday, where he spoke against lifting the Jones Act because people in the shipping industry were against it.

"We have a lot of shippers and a lot of people and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted," Trump said on Wednesday. "We have a lot of ships out there right now."

The Jones Act charges expensive tariffs for non US-flagged ships that deliver supplies between US ports.

Seven members of Congress had written a letter to the homeland secretary requesting that the Jones Act be lifted on Monday. Although it has been waived, Department of Homelands Security officials told reporters on Wednesday that the transport of fuel and other emergency supplies is being delayed because of damaged roads and infrastructure on the island itself.

"The most significant challenge is disruption to move within the island," an official said.

— Amber Jamieson

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Puerto Rico's Governor is asking US members of congress to help temporarily lift Jones Act restrictions

Alvin Baez / Reuters

Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rossello talks to a woman during a distribution of relief items.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has been reaching out to both Democrat and Republican members of Congress to ask them to push the Department of Homeland Security for a temporary suspension of the Jones Act to help relief efforts, a spokesperson for the governor told BuzzFeed News.

Rossello has received no commitments from US officials, but plans to keep reaching out to lawmakers in hopes the restrictions can be lifted, the spokesperson, Yennifer Álvarez, said.

"He's knocking on doors, but at this time, there are no promises," she said.

The Jones Act allows only US-flagged ships to conduct business between US ports, but the 97-year-old law was lifted temporarily after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to help relief efforts in Texas and Florida.

According to Puerto Rican officials, the waiver could help the island receive fuel and other supplies needed to recover.

Álvarez said Puerto Rico, like Florida, received a seven-day suspension of the act after Hurricane Irma, but Rossello is looking for a longer lifting of restrictions because the damage caused by Hurricane Maria has been much more extensive.

Some members of congress, including Republican Sen. Jon McCain, have urged the Department of Homeland Security to lift the restrictions.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, President Trump said his administration was "thinking about that" but that "people that work in the shipping industry" don't want the Jones Act lifted.

—Salvador Hernandez

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Thousands of tons of aid sat undistributed for days

When @ricardorossello told us there was food water & medicene sitting in the port of Puerto Rico, we went looking.…

Three thousand shipping containers filled with food, water, and medicine were stuck in a port on Puerto Rico for days, CBS reported on Wednesday.

Fuel shortages and communication problems have dogged the island since Hurricane Maria hit, and authorities had been unable to arrange for the aid to be distributed to the half million people it could help, CBS reported.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday that one of the challenges of the disaster was that civil employees like bus drivers and police officers hadn't shown up to work as they dealt with blocked roads and destroyed homes.

"We need bus drivers and buses to deliver crates," he said.

More FEMA workers, US troops, and volunteers arrived on Wednesday for disaster relief. But Department of Homeland Security officials getting aid where it was needed remained a huge challenge.

“The most significant challenge is disruption to move within the island,” a DHS official told reporters earlier Wednesday.

—Claudia Koerner

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President Trump's inaugural committee will donate $3 million to charities assisting in hurricane relief efforts, CNN and The New York Times reported Wednesday.

The Salvation Army, American Red Cross, and Samaritan's Purse will each receive $1 million, according to a statement obtained by the two outlets by Thomas J. Barrack, chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

"The surplus of these privately donated funds will be put to great substantive use for relief victims throughout the heartbreaking regions of America impacted by the recent catastrophic disasters," Barrack told the Times in an email.

The committee raised more than $107 million for the committee, and officials had pledged leftover funds would be donated to charity.

In a story published two weeks ago, the Associated Press reported committee funds were used to redecorate the White House and the vice president's residence, but that no money had been donated to charity nearly eight months after the inauguration.

It was not clear how much money the committee still has has in its coffers.

Salvador Hernandez

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President Trump told reporters he wasn't lifting Jones Act shipping restrictions that could help get much needed fuel, water, and other supplies to Puerto Rico because people in the shipping industry didn't want it lifted.

The Jones Act, which allows only US-flagged ships between US ports, was lifted after Hurricane Harvey and Irma struck Texas and Florida, helping the states receive needed supplies. Yet the restriction has not been lifted for Puerto Rico, where officials said infrastructure has been devastated by Hurricane Maria.

"We have a lot of shippers and a lot of people and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted," Trump told reporters Wednesday. "We have a lot of ships out there right now."

On Tuesday, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said that the agency had determined there were enough US vessels to move supplies into the island, and that the problem Puerto Rico was facing was port capacity.

"DHS can only waive for nat'l defense purposes," the spokesman said in a tweet.

But Trump's explanation to reporters suggested the president was instead making his decision off of the requests of industry leaders.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, have asked DHS to lift the restriction.

—Salvador Hernandez

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Royal Caribbean International has canceled a scheduled trip and will instead use the cruise ship for evacuation and humanitarian efforts in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, the company announced.

The ship, Adventure of the Seas, is set to arrive in San Juan Wednesday, where it is expected to drop off supplies and pick up evacuees.

In a Facebook post, the company said it will also make port in St. Thomas and St. Croix of the US Virgin Islands, before taking people to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The company is offering full refunds for the canceled cruise.

The ship is scheduled to return to San Juan on Oct. 6 to prepare for another trip starting there.

Royal Caribbean used its ships earlier this month to help distribute supplies in the Caribbean after the region was also hit by hurricanes. On Sept. 15, the company used two ships to distribute supplies to St. Maarten and St. Thomas.

Salvador Hernandez

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Puerto Rico police said Wednesday officers have arrested 36 people so far for looting and stealing as millions of the island's residents continue to struggle with shortages in food, water, and gasoline after Hurricane Maria.

In one video obtained by CNN, people were seen breaking through the glass of a supermarket door in San Juan before several people ran inside.

Reporter Rafael Romo said the store owner told him looters did not appear to be looking for food, but instead grabbed alcohol, cigarettes, and computers.

Looters set fire to a #PuertoRico Walgreens, Firefighters use flood water to douse flames. #Bomberos #SanJuan

At a Walgreens, in San Juan, firefighters responded to a fire inside after people took items from the store.

In an effort to save vital drinking water, firefighters used nearby floodwaters to put out the flames, NBC reporter Gadi Schwartz reported.

Puerto Rico Police Superintendent Michelle Hernandez told CNN another 60 people have been arrested for violating the mandatory curfew in the island.

Salvador Hernandez

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The Trump administration says it has not refused a request to waive the Jones Act after Hurricane Maria, which adds shipping tariffs to foreign ships transporting supplies, but that cost of shipping isn't an approved legal reason anyway.

"Contrary to current reports, DHS has not denied any waiver request associated with Hurricane Maria," said a senior DHS official, on a media press call about the Jones Act and Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning.

On Monday, group of seven representatives, including New York's Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano, and Illinois' Luis Gutiérrez, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Secretary, asking for the Jones Act to be waived:

The island is now facing an unprecedented uphill battle to rebuild its homes, businesses and communities. Temporarily loosening these requirements [the Jones Act] – for the express purpose of disaster recovery – will allow Puerto Rico to have more access to the oil needed for its power plants, food, medicines, clothing, and building supplies. Therefore, we request the Department of Homeland Security to provide a one-year comprehensive waiver of the Jones Act requirements for Puerto Rico.

Except, the open letter wasn't filed as a formal request. On Wednesday, the DHS decided to evaluate the request in an official capacity regardless of how it was filed.

The DHS officials told media that regardless of the Jones Act, the transport of fuel and other emergency supplies is not being delayed because of a lack of US-flagged ships (which is what the Jones Act covers) but instead because of damaged roads and transport on the island iteself.

"The most significant challenge is disruption to move within the island," said an official.

Officials also noted that the DHS' arms were tied when it comes to evaluating whether the Jones Act should be temporarily lifted, as it was for one week after Hurricane Harvey to help bring fuel and supplies to Florida and Puerto Rico.

"No one is denying that the cost might come down for cargo ships but we are not legally allowed to waive the Jones Act to make goods cheaper," noted one senior DHS official.

Instead, the only reason to waive shipping restrictions is for defense reasons, based on the current legalities of the Act as determined by Congress.

"It is not about cost, it is not about the economic implications, it is simply about national defense," said the official.

And the Department of Transport has to evaluate the request from congress representatives to see if there is a lack of US-flagged ships in the area.

"Of course we’re very concerned with the suffering in Puerto Rico. The federal government, DHS, FEMA and DoD, are leaning as far forward as possible to get as much assistance as quickly as possible," said an official.

"We’re very cognizant of the pain and suffering that is going on and we’re doing everything we can to alleviate that," the official added.

– Amber Jamieson

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Trump administration denies request to lift shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico

The Trump administration has denied a request to waive shipping restrictions to help get fuel, water, and other supplies to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, despite granting similar requests to Texas and Florida in the wake of other hurricanes this month.

Several US representatives requested the waiver for Puerto Rico Monday, asking the Department of Homeland Security to temporarily exempt the territory from the Jones Act, which limits shipping between US ports to US-flagged vessels. The law, which is designed to promote domestic shipping industry, has occasionally been lifted to facilitate the movement of fuel and other goods during emergencies.

But though DHS waived the Jones Act during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it declined to do the same in Puerto Rico.

“DHS’s current assessment is that there are sufficient numbers of US-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico,” DHS spokesperson David Lapan tweeted Tuesday night. “The limitation is port capacity to offload & transfer cargo, not vessel availability. + DHS can only waive for nat'l defense purposes.”

Puerto Rico has long criticized the Jones Act for increasing the price of goods — and by extension, the cost of living — on the island, arguing that the strict restrictions on shipping have damaged the island’s economy and contributed to its current financial straits. Studies have borne out this assessment, including a 2012 report from Puerto Rican economists that found the Jones Act cost the territory $17 billion between 1990 and 2010.

As Puerto Rico grapples with the immense devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, even a temporary reprieve from the Jones Act would help relieve some of the economic pressure on the territory, said former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno,

“Even at this stage in the recovery, a temporary waiver on the Jones Act, to bring in all the necessary assets to save lives, should be allowed,” Fortuno told BuzzFeed News. “It doesn’t make sense to do otherwise.”

In a statement Tuesday evening, US Sen. John McCain — a longtime critic of the Jones Act — called on DHS to rethink its decision regarding Puerto Rico, and to assess how a long-term waiver, or full repeal, of the law would impact other areas damaged by this season’s hurricanes.

“It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster,” McCain said. “Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome act.”

—Grace Wyler

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Rapper Pitbull reportedly lent his private plane to Hurricane Maria relief efforts, using it to transport cancer patients out of Puerto Rico so they can continue their treatment in the US.

Congresswoman Jennifer González, who represents Puerto Rico, thanked the performer in a tweet in Spanish Tuesday.

"Thank you to the singer @pitbull for lending his private plane to transfer cancer patients from PR to USA so they could undergo chemo," the tweet read. The tweet was then retweeted by Puerto Rico's Department of Health.

In an interview with E! News, Pitbull said he was "just doing my part."

"Thank God we're blessed to help," he said.

—Salvador Hernandez

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Almost 1.5 million people lacked drinking water and infrastructure remained crippled in Puerto Rico Tuesday as the devastation from Hurricane Maria continues.

In a report, the Department of Defense outlined the harrowing situation in the US territory, which was slammed last week while Maria was still a category 4 storm. Roughly 44% of the island's 3.4 million people were without potable water Tuesday, the report stated, while the local power grid suffered damage to "80% of the transmission system and 100% of the distribution system."

The report also revealed that only 11 of 69 hospitals had fuel or power. Domingo Cruz Vivaldi, executive director of San Jorge Children's Hospital in San Juan, told CNN that the facility was facing a "crisis right now" over fuel.

Read more here.

—Jim Dalrymple II

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Life in Puerto Rico is very difficult for Puerto Ricans trying to rebuild their lives, with little gas, little food in supermarkets, and few medical facilities open.

The medical situation has proved especially difficult, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said.

"We are finding dialysis patients that have not been able to contact their providers. We are having to transport them in near-death conditions," Cruz told CNN. "We are finding people whose oxygen tanks are running out, because our small generators now don't have any diesel, and disabled people, they live alone and can't just walk somewhere."

"Every time we find a person that is gasping for air — I am not painting a poetic picture, I am telling you I have seen them and held them in my arms — and helped them into an ambulance, and every time we do that we get a little frail, and of course we get a little afraid," she added. "But we also get a lot more resolve to push on and move on and to do whatever — our bodies are so tired, but our souls are so full of strength that we will get to everyone we can get to."

People were also lining up to try and get cash from ATM machines.

Longest line I've seen yet to withdraw cash from an ATM in San Juan, Puerto Rico. #Maria @nytimes

Many roads also remained covered in trees and debris.

This is what rural streets still look like in PR, imagine having a medical emergency people can't reach hospitals…

And days after Maria left Puerto Rico, families are still reuniting for the first time.

Finally made it to that mountain top & Jackie found her family!! Great to see the anxiety wash away & witness this…

— Amber Jamieson

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Puerto Rico will be reimbursed by US for all its reconstruction efforts during first 180 days

Evan Vucci / AP

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke, left, looks on as FEMA administrator Brock Long speaks to reporters.

President Trump on Tuesday approved an order to reimburse Puerto Rico during the first 180 days as the island struggles to deal with the aftermath and destruction of Hurricane Maria.

States and US territories typically cover 25% of disaster response costs, but Puerto Rico's economy was already under extreme duress prior to the hurricane.

Trump's order will be part of an increased financial and physical presence of the US after Puerto Rico's infrastructure was devastated by the storm, Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told reporters at the White House.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has been sent to the island to help rebuild its electrical grid, which was destroyed by the storm.

"The power workers, the first responders, are also survivors at this point," Long said.

Thousands of soldiers have also been deployed to Puerto Rico to assist in recovery efforts, which includes reestablishing airports, seaports, and roads in order to distribute aid across the island, Long said.

FEMA already has 4 million meals on the island, as well as 6 million liters of water to distribute, he added.

Elaine Duke, acting Secretary for the Department of Homeland, said Trump's order to reimburse Puerto Rico will also help local government officials in their response, though she did not offer specifics on how Puerto Rico, which was already reeling from an economic crisis before the storm hit, might deal with reconstruction over the long term.

—Salvador Hernandez

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President Trump on Tuesday defended the his administration's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico amid criticism that he doesn't appear to taking it as seriously as hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida.

"Everybody has said what a job we're doing in Puerto Rico, they're very proud of it," Trump said a joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. "We have had tremendous reviews from government officials ... this morning, the governor made incredible statements about how well we're doing."

Puerto Rican officials, however, have warned about how desperately the island needs urgent and long-term assistance.

"This is the biggest catastrophe in Puerto Rican history," Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosello told ABC News. "If we don't get unprecedented collaboration from the federal government here, this could collapse into a humanitarian crisis."

And on Tuesday, Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, said federal bureaucracy was slowing aid efforts.

"FEMA is great, but if they’re not allowed to do their job, if the chain of command is hindering them, if they need memos in order to process what they are seeing on the TV, on electronic networks and so forth, then you are tying their hands to their back," she told CBS.

During his White House press conference, Trump echoed his earlier comments that it is harder for aid to reach Puerto Rico because of its location.

"Frankly, it is the most difficult job. It is on an island in the middle of the ocean. You can't just drive your truck there from the other states," he said. "This isn't like Florida where we can go right up the middle ... this is a thing called the Atlantic Ocean. It's tough stuff."

When asked if he had focused on NFL protests at the expense of Puerto Rico, Trump disagreed.

"To me, the NFL situation is a very important situation. Was I preoccupied? Not at all," he said. "I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work."

Trump began the press conference by addressing the devastation in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, noting: "Both have been devastated, and I mean absolutely devastated, by Hurricane Maria and we're doing everything in our power to then hard hit people of both places, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands."

"A massive effort is underway and we have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor and by everybody else. They know how hard we're working and what a good job we're doing," Trump added.

The US has deployed Navy ships and is helping maintain security on the island, but that since the damage was so severe, recovery efforts will take a while, he said.

Puerto Rico is "a complete wipeout," Trump said. "This was a place which was destroyed."

—Amber Jamieson

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Hurricane Maria smashed headfirst into an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, Cayo Santiago, home to 1,500 research monkeys.

Scientists are now trying to help staffers wiped out by the storm, and get fresh water to the island for the stranded macaque monkeys, studied for decades on the island.

The monkeys live in six social groups on the island, which is uninhabited by people. Monkeys from all six groups have been observed after the storm, "living their normal monkey lives," Yale psychologist Laurie Santos, who heads one animal cognition project team on the island, told BuzzFeed News.

"The good news is that the monkeys seem to have got through the storm," Santos said. "The bad news is that pretty much everything else has been wiped out there."

Read more here.

—Dan Vergano

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"No, Mr. President, Puerto Rico is not doing well," declared Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez during a speech on the floor of Congress on Tuesday.

Referring to the World War II evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beach of Dunkirk, France, using vessels including small everyday fishing boats, Guiterrez added: "We need an effort the scale of Dunkirk."

"We need the federal government to go all in to rescue Puerto Rico from a humanitarian crisis, which is developing," said Guiterrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

He added that he does not think the federal government is not stepping up as quickly and fully as it should be.

"We all know that flooding destruction and complete elimination of the power grid for the whole island are among the consequences of Hurricane Maria. But this is no ordinary hurricane and it hit at no ordinary time," said Guiterrez, referencing the huge economic and debt issues the island has been facing for years.

View this video on YouTube

Guiterrez told Congress that in addition to immediate relief, such as food and fuel, the island needs long-term investment to rebuild.

"Like a lot of Americans, I have watched with increasing horror and panic as the governor of Puerto Rico, the mayor of San Juan, and ordinary Puerto Ricans have pleaded for more help," he said.

More than 5,000 local doctors have left Puerto Rico in the last 10 years to seek employment elsewhere, and hospitals do not have enough staff or fuel to handle the hurricane, he added.

He also called on the federal government to halt the Jones Act, which requires any foreign vessel bringing goods to Puerto Rico to be taxed, with those taxes passed on to local Puerto Ricans.

— Amber Jamieson

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President Donald Trump will travel to Puerto Rico next Tuesday to survey the island's extensive damage from Hurricane Maria, he announced.

"The island is devastated. I read this morning, it’s literally destroyed," said Trump, according to the pool report.

"The infrastructure is in bad shape, as you know, in Puerto Rico, before the storm and now in many cases it has no infrastructure. So you’re really starting from almost scratch," said Trump, noting that the island "needs a lot of money."

He also noted that Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens, "are important to all of us."

"I grew up in New York, so I know many people from Puerto Rico," said Trump.

Trump has received criticism that he's only tweeted about Puerto Rico, which may be without power and internet for months and will takes years to rebuild infrastructure, four times since the hurricane hit — while he's focused heavily on criticisms of professional athletes.

With airports damaged and no power, it has been difficult for the island to receive supplies such as food, water and medicine, but Trump said US federal authorities are now landing regularly with supplies.

“We have shipped massive amounts of food and water and supplies to Puerto Rico and we are continuing to do it on an hourly basis. But that island was hit as hard as you could hit. When you see 200 mile-an-hour winds, not even Texas had 200 mile-an-hour winds l.. literally houses are just demolished, it was like tornadoes. It was like having hundreds of tornadoes," said Trump.

Hurricane Maria hit the island last Tuesday, meaning it will be two weeks before the president's visit.

Trump said next week is the earliest he will be able to travel there because of the damage, according to the pool report.

“We’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and in Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico. But the difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean. And we’re doing a really good job,” said the president.

Trump may also stop in the US Virgin Islands, which was also hit hard by Maria, he added.

— Amber Jamieson

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This woman with family in Puerto Rico @-ed Trump about his response

Irelis Suarez, a 24-year-old based in Miami, has family who went through Maria in Puerto Rico.

“We have family who lost their houses,” she told BuzzFeed News via Twitter message. “Entire neighborhoods and towns destroyed. These are people's lives.”

“Puerto Ricans usually stay wherever they're from and most of these towns can be traced back to families for generations and generations,” she added. “It's not just material things. It's their entire lives.”

Since his Friday rally, Trump has tweeted about the US territory that has undergone a major hurricane 4 times and about sports 20 times.

Suarez @-ed the president on Monday night about his response to the crisis.

"Puerto Ricans are facing being without power for 4-6 months and instead of finding solutions to AMERICAN CITIZENS being without power he's criticizing them instead and talking about the NFL,” Suarez said.

She called the situation “frustrating.”

“People are suffering,” she said. “American citizens are suffering. And because it's a territory and not a state their lives don't matter? I bet if we were an oil gold mine this would be a very different conversation.”

—Remy Smidt

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Trump says Puerto Rico "is in deep trouble"

Facing louder criticism that his administration's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was not up to par with earlier hurricanes that struck Texas and Florida, President Trump on Monday took to Twitter to highlight the island's plight.

Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble..

...It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars....

...owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities - and doing well. #FEMA

Hurricane Maria hit the islands as a powerful Category 4 storm, decimating infrastructure and leaving many of the more than 3.4 million US citizens without power, communications, or access to food, water, and fuel. Officials have warned that it could take more than a month to restore electrical power, and a decade to rebuild the infrastructure.

Trump hadn't tweeted about the hurricane since last week, prompting concerns that disaster relief on the island was being treated as a highest priority.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello publicly urged Americans to not forget "this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million US citizens." And New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Democrat whose district has a large Puerto Rican population, told BuzzFeed News she was concerned there were too many issues on Washington's plate.

“I have a concern that given the priorities that we have that this doesn’t rank in terms of the issues that we need to address,” she said.

But on Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president was focused on Puerto Rico's recovery, despite engaging in a Twitter war with pro-sports players protesting during the national anthem.

"This president is very capable of doing more than one thing at a time and more than one thing in a day," she said.

On Tuesday morning the president thanked the mayor of San Juan for her "kind words on FEMA" adding that "we are working hard."

Thank you to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, for your kind words on FEMA etc.We are working hard. Much food and water there/on way

—Jason Wells

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As Puerto Rico struggles in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which left much of the island without power and 95% of its cellular sites out of service, some members of Congress are working to address the crisis and are worried it isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

Members of Congress returned to Washington Monday after several days’ worth of devastating stories from the island, following the category-four storm. But after Congress raced to pass additional funding to deal with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which caused severe damage in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Georgia — as well as Puerto Rico — some members of Congress worry that this new storm isn’t being met with the same urgency.

“I have a concern that given the priorities that we have that this doesn’t rank in terms of the issues that we need to address,” New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Democrat whose district has a large Puerto Rican population, told BuzzFeed News. “People are talking about tax reform and how much that will cost, debt ceiling, and the budget. So there are many conflicting issues right now.”

Read more here.

—Lissandra Villa

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At least 16 people have died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria, officials announced Monday.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello confirmed the new death toll, which has been climbing steadily since the storm passed over the island, the Associated Press reported. Across the Caribbean, Hurricane Maria has killed at last 49 people, the AP added.

The storm caused widespread devastation across Puerto Rico, but Rosello reportedly said Monday that he had been in touch with mayors on the island and was working to get food and water to areas that were cut off.

— Jim Dalrymple II

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President Donald Trump may have spent his weekend tweeting repeatedly against NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality — sparking condemnation from top athletes and coaches, and inflaming yet another culture war across the US — but the White House insists he's still focused on the disaster in Puerto Rico.

"It really doesn't take out that long to type out 140 characters," Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday, "and this president is very capable of doing more than one thing at a time and more than one thing in a day."

Since Saturday morning, the president has tweeted or retweeted some 17 posts about the sports world or athletes kneeling. He hasn't tweeted about the humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico since Wednesday.

Read more here.

—David Mack

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Flyover images capture "SOS we need food/water" written on a street in a destroyed Puerto Rican neighborhood

This heartbreaking message is from our flyover of #PuntaSantiago. #Humacao #PuertoRico needs a bigger response, & i…

James Higham, an anthropology professor at New York University, told BuzzFeed News that he chartered a helicopter on Sunday to go check on Maria's devastation to Puerto Rico's well-known "monkey island," Cayo Santiago.

Angelina Ruiz-Lambides, his colleague at Cayo Santiago and scientist at the University of Puerto Rico, snapped the photograph as she was flying over Humacao, an area on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico that sustained significant damage after Maria pummeled the island.

"#PuertoRico needs a bigger response, & it needs it now," their tweet read.

A number of Higham's colleagues are "facing extreme day-to-day challenges including lack of basic supplies, food, and water," according to a Gofundme page.

Brianna Sacks

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Satellite photos show lack of power in Puerto Rico

Satellite night images of #PuertoRico. #HurricaneMaria knocked out power grid, millions without electricity. More @…

Satellite photos by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show the extent to which Puerto Rico is in darkness following Hurricane Maria.

The two photos taken before and after the storm show large swathes of the territory without electricity.

Authorities have said it may take up to six months to completely restore power.

—David Mack

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Pleading for federal help for his constituents, Gov. Ricardo Rossello urged Americans to not forgot that those struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico are US citizens.

Rossello noted there had been an "tremendous outpour of solidarity" from people across the country in response to what he called "an unprecedented disaster."

"But make no mistake — this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million US citizens," he said. "We will need the full support of the US government. People cannot forget that we are US citizens — and proud of it."

In a direct plea on Twitter to Speaker Paul Ryan, Rossello wrote, ".@SpeakerRyan: We will need all your support as we rebuild rebuild #PuertoRico."

—David Mack

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Authorities have extended curfew in Puerto Rico "indefinitely"