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Politics & Government

Weeks After Maria, FEMA Still Distributing Basic Needs To Puerto Rico

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Puerto Rico governor, Ricardo Rossello, visits the White House today, so let's check on Puerto Rico's recovery after Hurricane Maria. Michael Byrne coordinates the Federal Emergency Management Agency response in Puerto Rico. He's on a scratchy phone line from San Juan.

Mr. Byrne, welcome to the program.

MICHAEL BYRNE: Hi. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So there's going to be so much debate about Puerto Rico's recovery today. But let me just ask you - how do you think you're doing?

BYRNE: You know, we're still heavy into the response, you know. I was thinking that I could use a whole bunch of superlatives. This is the largest humanitarian effort in the domestic United States. It's the longest that we've been doing response. And that kind of sums it up. You know, we're still serving 600,000 meals a day and delivering literally millions of liters of water out to the communities.

INSKEEP: So largest and longest response - and yet there is a situation that is so catastrophic that people are able to go online and look up these numbers for themselves. We're almost a month from the hurricane, and only 19 percent of the island has electricity. Only 69 percent have clean water. What do you say to people who hear those numbers and just can't understand?

BYRNE: Well, you know, it's - you know, 190 miles an hour winds just will tear through communities, tear through infrastructure. And that's what we've seen here. You know, I've been over a good part of the island. I've flown over, see major transmission lines knocked to the ground. But you know, the other thing I see is I do start to see signs of coming back, like stores are opening. Gas stations are now - you know, there's no more lines at the gas stations, things like that. But it's a tough road. You know, the people here are tough. But you know, it's going to be a while before we're going to be able to get things back to a real sense of normal.

INSKEEP: And now let me follow up on those two superlatives you did use; you said largest and longest. In terms of largest - even if it is the largest, is it really large enough? Have enough resources really been committed, given the vastness of the disaster here?

BYRNE: You know, again, the numbers are staggering. I've been doing disaster response a long time. And for me to sit here today, you know, we're over 10 million meals served, you know, that we've handed out. We, you know, literally equal numbers of water. We're turning the corner a little bit. We've got a, you know, a sort of a sense of stability. There's no one who's without, you know. Even the most remote areas we're being able to get into because we have so many helicopters that we're doing airdrops to get in there.

INSKEEP: But are you also thinking a little bit longer term about how a large population is going to be affected by living in these conditions for so long? I just think about numerous news stories about people drinking contaminated drinking water or potentially contaminated drinking water there from hazardous waste sites, wells on EPA Superfund sites. And maybe they'll be fine. Maybe they won't. Are you already having to think about health problems a month from now, six months from now, a year from now that may occur?

BYRNE: You know, we are - you know, we've got - we're looking at things. We have - we're not just looking at things, actually. We're actually doing things. We've got a robust vector control. You know, in the case of mosquitoes, standing water - after it storms - is always a problem. We've got a vector control spraying program that we're going to initiate.

You know, we're out, you know, sort of testing wells. A lot of testing goes on so that, you know, people don't drink the bad water. And we're providing lots and lots of water, both in bottles and in bulk, in big tankards of water, out to these communities. But you're right. There's going to be some people that are going to, you know, try to get what they can. What we sort of counsel them to do is not to drink it but to maybe use it for other purposes - to - you know, flushing toilets and things like that.

But the big thing is is that we are looking forward. You know, it's not just, you know, we're on our heels and just responding to every, you know, new emerging disaster. We've got, you know, some 50,000 power poles that are on order - on the way here, 6,500 miles of cable to start to restore the electric because, at the end of the day, the real key - the real sense of normalcy will come back when we have the power back.

INSKEEP: When you have the power on.

A couple of things - President Trump, as I'm sure you know very well, tweeted last week on October 12, (reading) we cannot keep FEMA, the military and first responders who have been amazing under the most difficult circumstances in PR forever.

Can't stay there forever - have you been telling Puerto Ricans you work with, we're not going to be here forever?

BYRNE: No, I've been telling them we're going to be here as long as it takes. I was given a mission, you know, by the president and by, you know, Administrator Long to come down here and do everything I can to restore normalcy and, even more, to build it back where it's more resilient.

INSKEEP: And I do have to ask - I mean, the president has referred to Puerto Ricans - or some of them anyway - as ingrates, talked about Puerto Rican debt, the implication being that it's Puerto Rico's fault for having poor infrastructure, I guess. Do you see this, in any way, as Puerto Ricans' fault?

BYRNE: You know, I meet tough people - just people, you know, who are resilient, who are, you know, willing to take a part in their recovery and their efforts to restore normalcy. You know, they're putting up with conditions that many of us would find really tough to live with, being without power, you know, most of the time. But again, like I said earlier, I do see signs of recovery - you know, I was in a Home Depot the other day, and the shelves are stocked, 86 percent of the supermarkets are open, the gas stations - you've got no lines. That was a big turning point to start this...

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: No lines for a gas station...

BYRNE: And people are moving on.

INSKEEP: ...That is a big deal. One other thing...

BYRNE: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Very quickly - I wonder if there's a deeper lesson here. I mean, the disaster to the infrastructure suggests how fragile it in fact was, probably, beforehand. And many people are learning - I mean, there's a part of the United States the size of a state, and it just has not been developed the way that much of the rest of the country has. Is that a lesson here?

BYRNE: It is. I think when we build, we need to realize that we need to build where it's resilient, where it can hold up to something like this. But you know, that said, you know, there isn't much infrastructure that was built, you know, years ago that can withstand 190 mile an hour winds.

INSKEEP: Understand what you mean. Well, Mr. Byrne, thanks very much. Really appreciate you taking the time.

BYRNE: Hey, thanks, Steve. Great talking to you.

INSKEEP: And good luck to you there in Puerto Rico. He's in San Juan. His name is Michael Byrne. He coordinates the Federal Emergency Management Agency response there. And we've been talking with him on this day when Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, is scheduled to visit President Trump at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEWARE OF SAFETY'S "HUSBANDS AND HANGMEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.