September 29, 2017

CNBC: Puerto Rico, short on fuel, cannot deliver food and medicine to the victims of Hurricane Maria

By:  Dawn Giel, Contessa Brewer, & Lori LaRocco, CNBC

It’s been more than a week since Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico, the most powerful such storm to hit the U.S. territory since 1932. It left much of the U.S. territory devastated, and, as fuel has been in short supply, delivery of much-needed supplies, such as food, medicine, water and construction materials, is essentially at a standstill at the Port of San Juan.

The numbers are staggering: More than 10,000 containers filled with supplies are being stored between Crowley and Tote Marine, the two main shipping companies operating out of the port.

President Donald Trump on Thursday approved a 10-day waiver of the Jones Act, allowing ships that aren’t owned and operated out of the U.S. to deliver goods to Puerto Rico. Yet with many ports on the island already at or near capacity, it’s unclear how this action will help alleviate the situation.

At Crowley, which has served the Puerto Rican market since 1954 (longer than any other Jones Act carrier), the yard is already over the normal capacity of 3,200 containers, and more than 400 additional containers had been delivered by midmorning Thursday. Crowley has rearranged the containers to try and make additional room, but as of Thursday morning there was only capacity for about half a barge of containers. After that, the company will start to store containers on the pier.

The Puerto Rico Ports Authority has also secured an emergency storage space for Crowley, which has the capacity for 200 containers.Still, it’s unclear what the next storage plan will be if that lot becomes full, and containers are still not moving out of the port.

Then there’s the issue of sustaining operations at Crowley’s port. Powering generators — including for a large amount of refrigerated containers, which contain perishable food and medicine — requires 2,500 gallons of diesel per day. There’s also a lack of fuel for trucks to deliver these supplies to the 3.4 million Americans across the island.

“It makes me sad and frustrated,” said Jose Pache Ayala, vice president of Crowley Puerto Rico Services. “Just to see that we have here all these goods, and that people out there are just begging, anxious, in the need of such important supplies and they are all sitting here in this yard.”

One of the biggest supermarket chains on the island, Supermercados Econo, has 104 containers in the Crowley yard and is only slowly moving them out. Major food distributor V Suarez has 114 containers. Wal-Mart has 70 containers stuck at the terminal for lack of trucks, drivers and fuel to move them out.

There are 226 supermarkets ready to open across the island, but they can’t open their doors until they have the diesel to fuel generators to power the buildings, according to the head of the food and beverage association.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has stepped in to help alleviate the fuel distribution disruption. On Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen fuel trucks departed Crowley’s terminal in San Juan.

The Department of Defense has also stepped in to support FEMA’s efforts to stabilize the situation.

“Gasoline is beginning to flow to gas stations, which, despite rationing, are unable to remain open for more than a few hours at a time,” according to the Pentagon’s latest situation update.

In the meantime, people across the island — many of whom have not had power or cellular service for more than a week — are desperately trying to find ways to get the essential goods and supplies they need to survive.

Maria Correa, 62, a pastor at the church King of Kings in Brooklyn, New York, decided to take matters into her own hands. Correa is traveling with a group of four people in conjunction with the World Cares Center, carrying essential items people on the island have requested.

“I have in my bag D batteries because a man reached out to our group saying his grandmother is on a ventilator that operates on batteries and they are about to run out,” Correa said on the plane ride to San Juan.

In addition to the batteries, the group has assembled care packages with nonperishable items, such as Spam, baby food, formula, diapers, water, first-aid kits, aspirin and other medicines.

The group arrived at JFK Airport with 43 boxes, but due to restrictions on weight and carry-on bags allowed per person, they were only allowed to bring a suitcase per person and 12 boxes.

Another member of the group, Gladys Garcia, 58, has family from Maunabo, a town just south of Yauco, where the hurricane made landfall. She said she has not heard from any family members.

Satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show some houses with roofs torn off and debris scattered throughout the surrounding land.

Nearly 100 percent of the island remains without power, and about 91 percent of cell sites are out of service, according to the most recent Department of Energy and FCC reports.

“People need help,” Correa said as she pointed at her handwritten list of addresses, phone numbers and items for the people who have reached out to her for help. “And we are going to try and help them.”