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Puerto Rico governor says relief arriving to storm-ravaged rural areas

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Puerto Rico’s governor says efforts to restore cell service, gas and other basic needs to the island’s rural residents are progressing, even as many in those towns report feeling forgotten.

“I recognize that right now, whether it’s the gas line or the ATM line, we’re limited,” Governor Ricardo Rossello told Reuters in an interview on Saturday at the Puerto Rico Convention Center, the government’s temporary headquarters.

“But if you see the numbers,” he said, “you see there is a steady path to improvement.”

More than half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people lack access to drinking water 11 days after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory, and 95 percent remain without power, according to the U.S. Defense Department. Some are expected to be without power for months.

But on Saturday, Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) officials reported that a third of the island’s telecommunications network had been restored, and some 765 gas stations - well over half - had fuel, though it was not clear how much.

Maria, the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, has destroyed roads, making it difficult to get food, water and fuel around the island.

In the rural towns of Salinas and Fajardo, the vast majority of locals reported having no cell service on Friday and Saturday, and said they had not seen local or federal officials in the area.

Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rossello attends a news conference days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 30, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

In Fajardo, some 400 people waited on line to enter a Wal-Mart store Saturday morning, while gas lines stretched more than a mile in some parts of town.

“We haven’t seen a government official or anything, no FEMA, no military, no local government,” said Daniel Santiago, 51, of Fajardo, as he waited in line to get into a food store.

Rossello, though, challenged the idea that the government is failing to reach rural towns - a perception he says might be fueled by a “severe limitation with communication.”

“I personally went to Salinas with seven National Guard trucks full of food and water,” he said, conceding that “you can always find somebody that hasn’t received resources, and I recognize that.”

Government response to the disaster has become a focal point in recent days, with U.S. President Donald Trump facing harsh criticism from many Puerto Ricans and leaders, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, for failing to deploy U.S. military resources more quickly.

Trump fired back at Cruz in a tweet, accusing her of “poor leadership” and saying some Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

The tweet offended some Puerto Ricans, but Rossello refused to criticize the president.

“My only focus right now is to make sure the people of Puerto Rico are well,” Rossello said. “I’m not paying attention to social media.”

Pressed on the tweet, the governor said the president’s words were not aimed at Puerto Rican citizens. “When I read that tweet … I didn’t see it as assigned to the people of Puerto Rico, I saw it as a personal difference with the mayor of San Juan.”

With his island still in desperate need of financial and infrastructure aid, the governor faces a balancing act in remaining on good terms with Trump, even as many of his constituents oppose him. Trump will visit the island on Tuesday.

The governor has had his hands full since the storm, saying he slept just three hours - combined - in five days after Maria hit.

Editing by Mary Milliken