Like a lot of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland U.S., Gabriela Durán felt helpless as she watched Hurricane Maria ravage her homeland last week. So she and hundreds of others living in Los Angeles started coordinating with local Puerto Ricans through social media and in 24 hours had raised $10,000 for food, water, hygiene products, and survival gear.
Durán then put the package on a JetBlue flight to San Juan addressed to a local volunteer group that planned to drive the goods to Loiza, a poor community one hour outside of San Juan. But the driver who was sent to the airport to get the supplies was turned away after waiting there for several hours.
It’s unclear what exactly happened to the goods Durán sent, but for the past seven days Puerto Rican government officials have been manually inspecting incoming shipments for any taxes owed, local officials told El Nuevo Día and El Vocero. “These people must know there are people dying, and you’re checking for a sales tax? Really?” said Xiomara Caro, Organizing Director for the Center for Popular Democracy, the group that was supposed to receive the shipment.
Relief supplies sent by charity groups are tax-free, but merchandise sent by individuals or for sale are subject to tax. If taxes aren’t paid, the shipments are held — indefinitely.
“These people must know there are people dying, and you’re checking for a sales tax? Really?”
The Puerto Rican government is blaming a trucker shortage for the delays in distributing aid to desperate communities outside San Juan. While the trucker shortage is indeed part of the problem, the bureaucratic red tape, lack of basic coordination, and incompetence are at the core of some delays generating misery for Puerto Ricans.
“The official story is that there aren’t enough trucks, but our brigade, we had the people to pick up the shipments and get them here,” Cedeno said about the donations from California. “They couldn’t take it because the government demanded that the tax had to be paid and they were holding it as if it was merchandise in normal circumstances.”
After days of complaints from Puerto Ricans awaiting shipments at the ports, the Treasury Secretary announced Thursday that the government will be lifting all taxes on donations, but community organizers say it may already be too late for some people in need.
“They waived the tax law seven days after the hurricane and only after this widespread uproar on social media,” Cedeno said. “Most of the communities that are the most devastated, they are municipalities that are not in urban areas, they are far away from the command center where decisions are being made.”
“The official story is that there aren’t enough trucks, but our brigade, we had the people to pick up the shipments and get them here.”
Two of the biggest shipping companies in Puerto Rico told VICE News that thousands of shipping containers full of goods that have arrived since the hurricane struck over a week ago are still sitting at the port in San Juan. Only 400 of the more than 2,700 containers delivered by the shipping company TOTE Maritime, which specializes in deliveries from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico, have been picked up from the port so far. Another 3,000 containers of government aid and commercial goods, most 53 feet in length, delivered by Crowley Marine Corp. are also stranded.
On Wednesday, Governor Ricardo Rossello published a phone number for truckers to call to be assigned distribution jobs, but after complaints that the line was not working, he announced Thursday that it is text-only. Local organizers told VICE News they are getting reports of drivers showing up at the convention center in San Juan who are being turned away and told to leave their phone numbers. CBS’s David Begnaud talked to a Florida rescue team leader at the convention center in San Juan who has been there for two days trying to get permission to work in the field with no luck.
Jesús Vázquez, a local volunteer, said his group is asking Puerto Ricans in the U.S. who are traveling to the island to put relief supplies in their luggage.
“That is the safer way to get things here,” he said.
Eduardo Caro, a Puerto Rican in California who helped organize the supply shipment earlier this week, said he is frustrated by the “poor organization.”
“The high level of bureaucracy to deliver aid needs to subside,” he said. “Anyone who is willing to move packages should be able to do it. Let Puerto Ricans help Puerto Ricans.”