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Hurricane Maria left a path of destruction in Puerto Rico, leaving most of its citizens without access to electricity and clean drinking water. The island’s residents talk about their daily struggle to survive and make end’s meet.
USA TODAY

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The Auxilio Mutuo Hospital here can’t figure out how to get specialized medical supplies from the nearby airport. A Puerto Rican in Tampa found the quickest way to deliver help to her hometown was to do it in person. And shipping containers filled with emergency goods are piling up at the Port of San Juan. 

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated this U.S. territory in the Caribbean, individuals and charities on the U.S. mainland trying to send supplies to the island are facing a series of bottlenecks that are keeping help from reaching those most in need.

The barriers range from a lack of communication to blocked roads to a shortage of vehicles and drivers to make deliveries. 

As a result, one Port of San Juan terminal is storing 3,400 containers — more than double the usual number, said Jose “Pache” Ayala, vice president and general manager for Puerto Rico at Crowley Maritime Corp.

Because of tangled power lines across roads, washed out bridges and highways and knocked out cellphone towers and radio antennas across the island, materials are leaving the Crowley terminal gate at 70% the normal rate before the storm, Ayala said.

The backlog affects goods and equipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, such as food and bottled water, bucket trucks, front-end loaders and 275,000 gallons of diesel and 75,000 gallons of gasoline.

“That relief cargo has priority,” Ayala said. It also affects commercial cargo such as building materials and medications that are also in great demand, he said.

“It’s easier to help internationally than it is in Puerto Rico,” said Neil Frame with Operation USA in Los Angeles. The non-profit, which ships donated medical supplies into disaster areas around the world, has not yet found a way to deliver goods onto the U.S. territory.
 
His group is currently shipping supplies to Mexico after the earthquake and also helping in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, but there it was easy — workers just drove down and found people who could help distribute. 
 
Because of lingering poor communications since Maria struck here Sept. 20, his group has only been able to connect with eight of about 60 hospitals on the island. “You know that the ones that really need it are the ones we haven’t been able to talk to,” he said.

Still, he has neonatal equipment that one hospital is waiting for and is planning to ship pharmaceuticals that have a shelf life, so they will not last if they wait in port.

Communications are still spotty and a major impediment for shippers and truckers.

“There are some packages sent by family to someone in Puerto Rico that because communications are so bad the person here doesn’t know (it’s coming),” Ayala said.

Trucker Ricardo Carbonell, 42, said damaged roads, downed trees and low-hanging power lines form another obstacle to get goods to those in need. And his company won’t deliver if dispatchers can’t get ahold of the recipient in advance.

“If there’s no communications, they call and call, nobody answers the phone, and we don’t bring them anything,” he said.

Another trucker, José Vasquez, 46, of Toa Baja, described how he took a container last week  from San Juan to Rio Piedra, unloaded it and brought the empty container back to Crowley. Usually he’d reload immediately, but since Maria knocked out the radio antennas between San Juan and his home base, he had to drive an hour to Toa Baja to get an order for his next load.

Normally, “I’d be gone in 10 minutes,” he said. “Now I have to go there, one hour, and come back, another hour, to get another load out.”

At Auxilio Mutuo Hospital, the only facility currently performing heart surgery on the island, administrators are having difficulty getting the specialized supplies needed for transplant patients.

“The issue is how do we get it from the airport to here,” said Carlos Méndez, associate administrator at Auxilio Mutuo. “We cannot communicate with anyone at the airport.”

Michael Fernandez, executive director at CARAS de las Americas, said some shipments languish for more than a week until the usual import tax is lifted for the emergency aid. And even now, “shipments are flowing, and a lot of non-profits are up and running, but that doesn’t mean aid coming from the government is actually getting there,” Fernandez said.

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