Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Now even money is running out in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico

Published:Friday | September 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Destruction from Hurricane Maria as seen Tuesday, September 26, 2017 in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. (AP)

First, Hurricane Maria knocked out power and water to Puerto Rico. Then diesel fuel, gas and water became scarce. Now, it's money.

The aftermath of the powerful storm has resulted in a near-total shutdown of the US territory's economy that could last for weeks and has many people running seriously low on cash and worrying that it will become even harder to survive on this storm-ravaged island.

There are long lines at the banks that are open with reduced hours or the scattered ATMs that are operational amid an islandwide power outage and near-total loss of telecommunications. Many people are unable to work or run their businesses because diesel to run generators is in short supply, or they can't spend all day waiting for gas to fill their car.

Engineer Octavio Cortes predicts it will only get worse because so many of the problems are interconnected and cannot be easily resolved.

"I don't know how much worse it's going to get," Cortes said as he joined other motorists stopping on a bridge over a river in northern Puerto Rico to catch a faint cell phone signal. "Right now it's manageable, but I don't know about next week or after that."

The father of six typically works from home or travels around the world for his job, but neither approach is possible now because the power is still out for nearly all 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico and flights off the island are down to only a few each day.

While Cortes is okay for the moment, others don't have nearly the same resources.

Cruzita Mojica is an employee of the Puerto Rico Treasury Department in San Juan. While she, like many public-sector workers, has been called back to work, she can't go because she has to care for her elderly mother in the aftermath of the storm. She got up at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday and went to four ATM machines, only to find each one empty.

"Of course, I took out money before the hurricane, but it's gone already," she said. "We're without gasolene. Without money. Without food. This is a disaster."

Surgical technician Dilma Gonzalez said she had only US$40 left and her job hasn't called people back to work yet in the capital. "Until they let us know otherwise, I'm not supposed to go back," she said with a shrug as she pressure-washed the street in front of her house, sending muddy debris flying.

On the defensive over the pace of federal help for Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans cleared the way Thursday for more supplies and government cash for the hurricane-ravaged island.

Trump waived federal restrictions on foreign ships delivering cargo. And House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief account will get a US$6.7-billion boost by the end of the week.

The developments Thursday came after Trump came under sharp criticism for what critics said was a too-slow response to a humanitarian crisis among Puerto Rico's 3.4 million residents.

Ryan, meanwhile, said a "huge capital injection will occur in two days" to help Puerto Rico recover. He noted Trump had waived a matching funds requirement, which means the cash-strapped island won't have to contribute to the initial costs of the federal assistance. The Wisconsin Republican said he expects the Trump administration to send Congress a request for a long-term recovery package once damage assessments are conducted.

"We will quickly act on that request," Ryan said.

Duke said the shipping waiver came in response to a request from Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello. The waiver, the White House said, would go into effect immediately.

The Trump administration initially said a waiver was not needed for Puerto Rico because there were enough US-flagged ships available to ferry goods to the island.

Puerto Ricans are all struggling with the overwhelming devastation of Hurricane Maria, which began tearing across the island early in the morning of September 20 as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155mph. It destroyed the entire electricity grid while grinding up homes, businesses, roads and farms. At least 16 people were killed. There still is no exact tally of the cost and full extent of the damage, but Governor Rossello says it will bring a complete halt to the economy for at least a month.

"This is the single biggest, major catastrophe in the history of Puerto Rico, bar none, and it is probably the biggest hurricane catastrophe in the United States," Rossello said Wednesday as he delivered aid to the southern town of Salinas, whose mayor says 100 per cent of the agriculture there was wiped out when the wind tore up plantain, corn, vegetables and other crops.

Before the storm, the island's government was in the midst of bitter negotiations with creditors to restructure a portion of its US$73 billion in debt, which the previous governor declared unpayable. Rossello appeared to warn the bondholders that the storm had made things worse. "Puerto Rico practically will have no income for the next month," he told reporters.

- AP