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In Puerto Rico, Residents Scramble For Supplies A Week After Hurricane Maria


Nearly a week after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, many areas are still waiting for outside help. Much of the island remains without electricity. Residents and businesses are beginning to run out of fuel to power generators. And frustration is growing across the island. NPR's Greg Allen spent the day in the Puerto Rican city of Toa Baja. And he joins us now. And, Greg, what is the situation in Toa Baja?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, this is an area that was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Maria. We visited the town of Levittown, a name familiar to people on the mainland. It's a middle-class community - houses built about 40 years ago. But it was flooded badly when the storm hit. It's right on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. Maria caused widespread flooding.

Waters came up to 4 and 5 feet through the area. Most people evacuated, but some people were taken off their rooftops. We visited with Yvonne Rosario (ph). She was there with her husband to clean up her mom's house, her 82-year-old mother. Outside, there are piles of debris from flooded homes everywhere, mattresses, sofas, clothing - the kinds of things you see when people have their possessions ruined by a flood.

And she said there's some frustration there because - she says over the radio she's heard you can apply to FEMA for help. But they say you can apply on the phone or online. But that's useless, she says.

YVONNE ROSARIO: We need help. I think that FEMA has to right now establish some physical centers so that people will come to them because we don't have internet.

ALLEN: You can hear the frustration in her voice there.

SIEGEL: Well, Greg, will people in Levittown actually be able to move back into their homes?

ALLEN: Well, Robert, yesterday, we visited a - kind of a poorer area called Catano where the homes were destroyed. And people there have few resources. And I think it's pretty clear that people there told us there are going to be able to move into new homes without help. And Levittown, as I say - as you say - it's middle class. It's an area that can be renovated - kind of what we saw in New Orleans in many areas after Hurricane Katrina.

But we talked to elderly people who - they own their home, and they don't have insurance. So this is where FEMA's going to have to come in and other assistance. They're going to be back in their homes. For Yvonne Rosario, she's worried about her mother - will never be able to return home. She's in her 80s now and not in the best of health. So this just might be too much. We don't know if she'll ever be able to come back.

SIEGEL: Well, from what you've seen in Puerto Rico, what is the greatest need there?

ALLEN: Well, around the island, there's this real sense of panic over gasoline. The lines you see outside gasoline stations are literally miles long. People wait in line for 12 hours to get a few gallons of gas. And the problem here is that many gas stations were destroyed. Authorities say there's plenty of gas. They just have trouble getting it to the people.

In Toa Baja, there's just 3 of 10 of the gas stations still operating. So that's part of the issue here. The other issue is banks have been closed. They're starting to reopen. ATMs are open. Long lines there - people need cash 'cause this is a cash economy now with electricity out and electronic transactions difficult. The biggest need, though, probably is clean, running water. It's still not available in many areas.

Today in Toa Baja, we visited with some folks who were waiting around a little spigot, which is just a stream of water coming out. They had buckets - just filling up their buckets to get as much clean water as they could so they can take baths at home and flush their toilets.

SIEGEL: Greg, this is hardly the first natural disaster that you've covered. I just wonder, what makes responding to the damage in Puerto Rico especially tough?

ALLEN: Yeah. The logistics here are really daunting. I mean, first of all, start with the fact that it's an island and, you know, hours away by boat from the mainland. You can't drive here. We've got so many Puerto Ricans on the mainland who are - millions who are dying to get back to the island to be with their parents here and can't offer the aid.

And then when you get it here, the question is, how are you going to distribute it to the many dozens of communities around the island? The roads are just being cleared. Trucks aren't readily available for this yet. And so we're seeing a real pinch in relief getting to people. And I think it's largely because of the difficulty of servicing this island from the mainland.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Greg Allen in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.