A tale of two Puerto Ricos: What Trump saw — and what he didn’t

 In World

A forest, denuded of leaves and branches, stands in an area outside the city of Caguas, Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Infrastructure across the island is in ruins after Hurricane Maria crossed the island two weeks ago. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The Puerto Rico that President Trump saw during his four-hour visit on Tuesday afternoon was that of Angel Pérez Otero, the mayor of Guaynabo, a wealthy San Juan suburb known for its amenity-driven gated communities that was largely spared when Hurricane Maria hit nearly two weeks ago.

Pérez Otero led Trump and his entourage on a walking tour of a neighborhood, where high-speed winds had blown out some second-story windows and knocked over a few trees — but where life seemed to be returning to normal, thanks to assistance from the government. Neighbors stood outside their homes ready to warmly greet the president, their phones powered up and ready to snap photos.

One homeowner told Trump that he lost a couple windows and still hasn’t regained electricity, but he was never worried about his family’s safety.

“We have a good house, thank God,” he told the president.

“That’s fantastic,” Trump said. “Well, we’re going to help you out. Have a good time.”

If the president had traveled a little deeper into the island, to the communities that sustained some of the heaviest damage, he would have witnessed a very different Puerto Rico.

Just 10 miles southeast of Guaynabo is this mountainous city of Caguas, nestled in a valley ringed by steep sierras and narrow mountain passes, with homes built densely on the edges of gravity-defying slopes. These hills were stripped naked by Maria’s malicious winds, leaving the trees without leaves and fruit, their bare branches contorted in painful postures. Houses that withstood tropical rain and wind for decades were blown off their foundations and destroyed by toppled vegetation. Twisted metal roofs landed in creeks all over the once-lush region.

The gravity of Caguas’ devastation hit Mayor William Miranda Torres when he saw the fallen ancient trees of the botanical garden where his father, the longtime Caguas mayor known as “El Viejo,” had his ashes spread after he died of cancer in 2010.

“That’s when it became hard to hold back the tears,” he said. “No matter how prepared you think you are, you can’t be prepared for something like this.”

In Guaynabo, the conversations, usually in English, are growing more positive with local officials listing what they see as measures of success: All airports and nearly all ports have reopened, thousands of federal workers are on the ground, more than 65 percent of grocery and big-box stores have reopened, 64 of 68 hospitals are open, and roughly 70 percent of gas stations are operational.

But here in Caguas there remains a sense of desperation with Miranda Torres rattling off a much more dire list of statistics in Spanish: Nearly 1 in 10 residents were severely impacted by the storm’s destruction. More than 1,200 homes were flattened or suffered major damage. At least one person died at a shelter from complications of diabetes after not having access to medical care, and two people committed suicide.

Many more could be dead not just in Caguas but in many rural municipalities where hospitals shut down and lifesaving medical treatment was out of reach for several days. And it’s unclear how many people drowned in flooding or were trapped by mounds of tumbling mud.


Homes and infrastructure lie in ruins outside the city of Caguas, Puerto Rico on Tuesday. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

‘Nothing short of miracle’

After the neighborhood tour in Guaynabo, Trump traveled to the nearby Calvary Chapel, an evangelical church that’s especially popular with conservatives and mainland Americans who have moved to Puerto Rico.

The church, which has a number of locations across the United States, has received large shipments of donated food, water and survival gear to distribute. Members track these donations on a the church Facebook page. On Thursday, meals arrived on a chartered plane. On Sunday, 7,000 pounds of food arrived at the airport. On Monday, six pallets of food. The church is awaiting the arrival of a shipping container packed with more than 40,000 pounds of food and supplies.

Early Tuesday morning, the church told its Facebook followers that they expected a visit from the mayor and Puerto Rico’s governor “along with other special guests.”

“Everyone is invited — especially if you and your family are in need,” the church wrote.

Standing outside the church with a group of reporters, Trump said the government response here “has been something like I’ve never seen before.”

“What has happened in terms of recovery, what has happened in terms of saving lives — 16 lives, that’s a lot, but we compare that to the thousands of people that died in other hurricanes that were not nearly as severe,” Trump said, citing an official death toll that was several days old.

It wasn’t until after Air Force One took off Tuesday that the government updated its official death toll from 16 to 34, allowing reality to once again settle on an island that maneuvered itself into the most flattering light possible for the president’s visit.

Throughout the day, Trump was surrounded by local government officials willing to back up his assertions.

Guaynabo’s mayor, Pérez Otero, said that mayors need to do all that they can for their residents instead of blaming problems on the federal government. Over the weekend, Pérez Otero came to Trump’s defense when San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz accused the administration of not doing enough to help. In interviews with conservative outlets, Pérez Otero accused Cruz of not participating in relief efforts like other mayors have, an attack Trump quickly adopted.

“Your people are doing the right stuff for us,” Pérez Otero told Trump on Tuesday. “And that’s my experience over here in Guaynabo in the helping of thousands and thousands of people. So thank you, thank you, Mr. President.”

A reporter asked the president if he had a message for Puerto Ricans who still don’t have power, food or clean water.

“The power grid, honestly, was devastated before the hurricanes even hit — and then the hurricanes hit and they wiped them out,” Trump said, adding that numerous generators have brought the island back to life. “Again, the job that’s been done here is, really, nothing short of a miracle. It has been incredible.”


William Miranda Torres, the mayor of Caguas, hugs a girl whose dog was just run over. Torres was on a driving tour around his afflicted city. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, in nearby Caguas, Miranda Torres was trying to make up for lost time. In the 48 hours after the hurricane, communication was impossible. Since then, he has lost count of how many times he traveled to San Juan to tell the central government what his people needed: food, water and generators. But it took more than a week for a trickle of supplies to reach the town.

For days, the shelters had no generators. The hospitals were without water. And the help wasn’t coming quickly enough because the roads were covered in mud and debris.

“We would tell we them needed tarps for roofless homes and they’d say, ’Okay, let’s do it,’” Miranda Torres said. “But then they didn’t have anyone to drive the trucks to deliver the supplies. I’d go to the command center to spend four or five hours there listening and advocating for my city. It was frustrating.”

Tactically, federal and Puerto Rico authorities had the right idea, he said. Logistically, the operation failed.

Miranda Torres and other local leaders went to work identifying and solving problems.

Residents could not get out of their barrios because of fallen debris, so within a week the city government and workers cleared every winding mountain road. Nearly 700 senior citizens in home care or nursing homes did not have care and food, so volunteers went into all the barrios to locate bedridden seniors who needed help. Hundreds of people did not have enough of their medication to get through the week, so the municipal government coordinated directly with local pharmacies to sort through inventory and facilitate deliveries of specific medications to residents.

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