On Wednesday morning, a line of about 1,000 people snaked down Highway 901 in the southeastern municipality of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Legions of survivors of Hurricane Maria were waiting for FEMA officials to arrive so they could apply for disaster assistance.
Maria hit Yabucoa first before smashing the rest of the US island territory, and the municipality of 43,000 people suffered some of the worst damage in Puerto Rico. Desperate for relief, many of them had been waiting overnight for the FEMA team, a testament to the ongoing misery in the area a month after the storm tore across the island.
Juana Rivera said she'd arrived at the site, a children's recreation center called Parque Del Niño, at 11 PM Tuesday night. She was number 36 in line.
"We're here because we have to be," she told me.
By 8 AM Wednesday, the frustration coursing through the crowd was readily apparent. Many didn't have food or water on hand, there were no easily accessible bathrooms, and it had been raining intermittently all morning.
Worse, many of those at the front of the line were diabetic, suffered from high blood pressure, or else were stroke victims—and had the paperwork on hand to prove it to the United States government.
This was to be the third FEMA visit to Yabucoa since the storm, and everyone I spoke to feared it might be the last. As a matter of policy, FEMA distributes information through news releases, social media and other means, but those in line said they either knew about the event because of alerts from a local radio station or else simply through word of mouth.
One problem from the jump on Wednesday: No one seemed to know when to expect help to actually arrive.
A FEMA spokesperson told me Thursday that the agency hadn't indicated an arrival time, only that officials would leave San Juan at 8 AM. The spokesperson added that the agency works with the mayors of each municipality to coordinate registration events. They noted that so far, ore than 740,000 individuals have registered for help, which they cited as an indicator that the agency is effective at reaching those in need.
But Porfirio Burgos Fernandez, who arrived at 4:30 AM, said he learned about the on-site registration from his neighbors. The damage to his home included three blown out doors, broken windows, and flooding, he said.
"I've never seen something destroyed like that," he told me. "My house was a mess."
According to the spokesperson, FEMA has provided millions of meals and bottled water to all 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico. They added that this is the largest sustained commodity mission in the history of the agency for a disaster of this size. How much food and water get delivered to any given locality is based on the needs identified by the state, the spokesperson added.
But several Yabucoeños said Wednesday they hadn't received much besides a few bottles of water and some ready-to-eat meals (MREs). Though there was some food in stock at the local supermarket, prices have increased and remained high, storm victims said. In an area where about half the population lives below the poverty level, inflation like that hits hard.
As of Wednesday, 69 percent of homes in Puerto Rico had running water and about 19 percent had electricity, according to the government website Status PR. But the people of Yabucoa said they had neither.
Carmen Inostrza arrived to the FEMA site at 6 AM and received ticket number 453. She said she's been buying water to drink but collecting rainwater for bathing and other uses in her home. "Thank God it's been raining so much," she told me.
The FEMA spokesperson confirmed locals' account that the agency was encouraging them to file paperwork online or ask friends and family in the United States to do so for them. But without functioning cell service in Yabucoa, much less internet, that wasn't an option for most people.
Melissa Cruz, for one, was frustrated that officials had asked people to line up outside the gates of the site, alongside a busy highway.
"They said it's for their security," she noted. "But what about our security? We're human too. If they were us, they wouldn't want to be in our position. They treat us like we're animals or something."
By 9 AM, the situation was descending into chaos. Storm victims, confused and frustrated, were demanding answers from authorities, which included the local police. There was little information being dispersed; authorities instead reprimanded members of the public for getting out of line. It was unclear whether FEMA representatives had even arrived at that point. Police at the scene declined to comment on the situation.
The low-point of the day came when a caravan of military vehicles approached the gathering while working its way down Highway 901. Bystanders cheered, believing that help had finally come. But the vehicles drove right past the site while military members waved and smiled, as if on parade floats.
FEMA representatives finally arrived just after 10 AM, and officials began calling storm victims' names one by one so they could be let inside the gate. The FEMA spokesperson said the agency doesn't track total attendance at individual events, but that it had registered 222 survivors in Yabucoa that day, and answered the questions of "many other" people.
Despite Donald Trump rating his administration's response to Puerto Rico a ten out of ten this week, staffers with US Representative Nydia Velazquez's office said the scene Wednesday mirrored what they've heard from other parts of the island about a confused and haphazard relief effort.
"It seems clear the Administration did not have a meaningful plan in place to rapidly deploy federal assets after Maria struck, and we're still seeing the lingering effects of federal agencies being caught so flatfooted," the Congresswoman, a native of Yabucoa, said in a statement. "While right now we are focused on ensuring aid gets to Puerto Ricans as rapidly as possible, in the coming months we will need to ask a lot of tough questions about why this response was so delayed and ineffective."
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