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A cell signal, an open bar: tiny wins for Puerto Rico in ruins

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Puerto Ricans still living largely in darkness 12 days after Hurricane Maria leveled their island reveled in small victories on Sunday in what promises to be a months-long slog back to some semblance of normal life.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, U.S., September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Some islanders got their cell phone service back on Sunday, others gathered at bars for drinking and dancing after the dry law was lifted this weekend.

“Everyone is talking about Maria,” said Julianna Melendez, 36, while out at a bar in Guaynabo, near the capital San Juan. “A lot of people lost their homes, and they are still living in them. We need help.”

Food and drinking water are still in short supply and power is down for most of the U.S. territory’s 3.4 million people nearly two weeks after the fiercest hurricane to hit the island in 90 years.

U.S. lawmakers urged President Donald Trump on Sunday to stop sniping at Puerto Ricans and get to work helping them recover, two days before he was to visit the island.

The Republican president said his government was doing a “great job” to help Puerto Rico recover and took a new swipe at critics who said he had been slow to aid the island.

“We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates,” he said in a Twitter post.

Trump faces difficult weeks, if not months, in managing the U.S. territory. His senior general leading military relief operations in Puerto Rico, Lieutenant General Jeff Buchanan, said they were clearing roads and getting more supplies to people, but recognized “it’s still a long haul.”

Trump has intensified his praise of the federal response after the mayor of San Juan made clear those efforts fell short and American media continued to broadcast images of the havoc and suffering on the island that belied his words.

At the same time, he criticized San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz on Saturday and said Puerto Ricans wanted “everything to be done for them.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told CBS’ “Face the Nation” the relief effort so far has been “slow footed, disorganized and not adequate.”

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“The president, instead of tweeting against the mayor of San Juan who’s watching her people die and just made a plea for help, ought to roll up his sleeves and get to work here,” he said.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, urged an end to the political fingerpointing.

“Every minute we spend in the political realm bickering with one another over who’s doing what, or who’s wrong, or who didn’t do right is a minute of energy and time that we’re not spending trying to get the response right,” Rubio told CBS.

Trump launched his attack on San Juan’s mayor during a weekend stay at his golf resort in New Jersey, where he was attending the President’s Cup tournament on Sunday.

He dedicated the Cup trophy to victims of Maria and this summer’s previous major hurricanes Irma and Harvey, “all of those people that went through so much, that we love.”

Referring to Puerto Rico, Trump said “we have it under really great control.”


Maria pummeled Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a very powerful Category 4 hurricane on the heels of Irma, with roof-ripping winds and torrential rains that caused widespread flooding and heavily damaged homes, roads and other infrastructure. About half of the island’s people do not have access to drinking water, and 95 percent remain without power, according to the Pentagon.

Nearly 90 percent of cell phone towers are out of service, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Impassable roads have made it hard for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others to distribute food, water and fuel.

Guaynabo Mayor Angel Perez said the situation is improving, albeit slowly. City employees are working 12-hour shifts, going door-to-door throughout the suburb of more than 100,000, taking a census on whether residents need water, ice, clothing or other basic necessities.

“FEMA is telling me I’ll be getting some money in advance instead of reimbursement, so that’s really going to help,” Pérez said, adding that damages to municipal buildings alone will top $25 million in Guaynabo.

Carmen Miranda, 60, of Luquillo, is among those who has faced long lines for gasoline, medicine and supplies. She spent 13 hours one day trying to buy fuel at a station that ran dry and was in line on Saturday at a store that ran out of diesel.

“I’m going to have to come back another day,” she said. “It’s just horrible, those lines. That needs to be resolved immediately. President Trump, anyone, help us!” she said.

At a briefing in San Juan, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello reported that fuel and food supplies had begun to arrive in Puerto Rico. “We still need to do much more,” he said.

Rossello remains in good standing with Trump, earning plaudits in the president’s tweets, while Cruz came under sustained fire from other Washington officials.

FEMA director Brock Long admonished her for not being in closer contact with relief coordinators. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin both said on Sunday that Cruz’s criticism was unfair.

Cruz, who has been living in a shelter since her house was destroyed by Maria, pressed on with her appeal for basic necessities as insurers and politicians began to tally the costs of the storm and the size of the aid package Puerto Rico will need.

“Let us not talk about the debt, let us not talk about the cost of reconstruction. Let us just talk about saving lives right now,” Cruz said on Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program.

Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Julia Harte, Jim Oliphant, David Shepardson, Nick Brown and Hugh Bronstein; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Mary Milliken; Editing by Sandra Maler