Q&A: What Keeps Puerto Rico’s Governor Awake at Night

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Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló said the first priority was the safety and well-being of Puerto Rico residents. Decisions on rebuilding can come later, he said. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

SAN JUAN, P.R. — Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico discussed the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the needs of island residents with a reporter from The New York Times on Tuesday. Here are his remarks, edited for length and clarity.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

A. The safety of the people of Puerto Rico. I haven’t slept much. It’s been very intense, but I am committed to making sure that during this emergency period we have our people safe, we can make sure they are alive, getting food and water. After we stabilize the situation, we can think about how to rebuild Puerto Rico.

Q. What’s your biggest worry?

A. Here’s my worry: the perception that this is just, for lack of a better term, this was a regular hurricane impact. This is a major catastrophic event here. Puerto Rico, within the span of two weeks, received two Category 4-5 hurricanes. That has never happened anywhere. The devastation has been enormous.

Q. Have you spoken to President Trump?

A. I have spoken to him at least five times. A few hours ago, I was in the situation room briefing him. He has been acting proactively. He issued two pre-landfall emergency declarations for Puerto Rico. That had never been done before. He declared Puerto Rico a disaster area practically while the storm was still hitting Puerto Rico.

Q. What do you tell him? The phones are down; the lines are around the streets and back; hospitals are closed. Where do you begin to tell him what you need?

A. There are several priorities. The health care situation, making sure we have hospitals running, making sure we have situational awareness of those hospitals.

We have fuel in Puerto Rico, the distribution has been a little slow. We have been hard pressed to find bus drivers; we are hard pressed to communicate with people. It’s been a little slower than expected.

Q. What happened to the drivers?

A. Several things. There has been severe devastation on many parts of the island. There are places still disconnected in terms of roads. People can’t get out of where they are at. If you happen to be a driver that was there, you can’t leave.

Second, and this is happening to all our government employees: There has been a reduced percentage of people who have reported. Some have reported to say, “Hey we’re stuck, we can’t leave.” So those are the reasons. We are finding more of them. Things are moving.

Again, the anxiety builds because people feel there is no fuel, when there is. And we made some progress there: 48 hours ago, we had 181 gas stations open, and now we have 450.

Q. How many are there total?

A. 1,100

Q. For there to be this level of a communication failure, was there a failure of some kind, was it an inevitable act of God and nobody’s fault, or was there a problem somewhere?

A. If we are going to talk about the root causes, our energy infrastructure had not been maintained properly for, you know, over a decade. We had a very, very weak energy infrastructure. I came in eight months ago, and one of our objectives was to go to the private sector and see how we can refurbish and renew this infrastructure. It was subject to collapse even when there wasn’t an emergency or an event like this.

Communications are essentially down. It affects essentially everything. In terms of some underlying problems that we had, sure, I would significantly point to a few: the power generation structure. It was old, it was unmaintained.

Vulnerable housing, houses made out of wood. They just didn’t stand a chance. They just didn’t stand a chance. That’s why our efforts five days before the storm was, “Hey, if you are in a flooded area, or in wooden housing, or mudslide region, get out or you will lose your life.”

Q. How is it that there are hospitals without generators and satellite phones?

A. Most hospitals have generators; they ran out of fuel. What we are doing in terms of fuel is making sure it gets to hospitals.

Some capability of sat coms should be around the island. We didn’t have it. What we have been doing is, provisionally, I’ve been going personally and my team has been going personally to different sides of the island and handing over sat phones to the mayors so they can communicate.

But again, once the infrastructure collapsed, in terms of the energy grid, and because we had many obstacles in the roads, and some communities were essentially cut off, those things aggravate one another. There’s no communication, there’s no direct linking, and that’s why this became an enormous challenge.

Q. How long will it take to restore power?

A. It depends. Pockets will be restored earlier. There was severe devastation. To give you a sense, Irma came by, Irma shook the power grid. We had to revamp it. It took us about 10 days to get to 97 percent. Not one tower was harmed. I saw personally at least 30 towers, in pieces, collapsed. This is completely different. We are going to need generators.

Q. Are you pleased with the pace of aid, the relief?

A. Here’s the thing, and I want to be very clear with this. I am very pleased with the consideration the president has given to Puerto Rico. He has been on top of it, at least personally in communication with me and communication with some of our officials as well as his officials. However we still need more, and the president understands that, and his team understands that.

Because it was an unprecedented event, on an island, that’s something needs to be considered. This is not a Category 3 hurricane going to Florida, causing severe devastation but also having the access of people in Georgia, New York and so forth driving down and giving you the resources. We have to actually bring them down by boats or airplanes. And adding to that, air traffic control has been clogged. We are working at about a 20 percent clip. With that 20 percent, when we notified the administration, they took action quickly, they opened alternative airports that would alleviate the need for more resources to come to San Juan.

Q. You were tough yesterday in your words and suggested Puerto Ricans were being treated as second-class citizens. Presumably you meant in comparison to Texas and Florida, which were recently hit by storms.

A. I was [giving] a warning essentially to Congress, to take action. I wanted to make sure, and I think that message got across, that people know [our] people are U.S. citizens.

Q. I’ve had people on social media tell me that they hoped Puerto Ricans would not be able to come to the United States, because we’ve already met the 50,000 refugee cap.

A. So this is why there needs to be some orientation on this front, which is one of the reasons that the federal government also needs to act. If it doesn’t act, one of the outcomes is a massive exodus of Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, and can fly in and fly out without any sort of paperwork, they just need to buy a plane ticket. That will cause deep demographic turmoil for us here in Puerto Rico and it will cause deep demographic turmoil in the states where they go as well.

Q. You talked about a humanitarian crisis. Are you worried about disease?

A. My words yesterday were to warn about a possible humanitarian crisis. We don’t want the United States to have a humanitarian crisis, and it could happen here in Puerto Rico.

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Source: New York Times

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