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Puerto Ricans Scramble for Food, Fuel and Money; Millions Without Power, Water and Gas; Rain and Flooding Forecast in Puerto Rico. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 29, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman.

This is not a good news story. This is a people are dying story. That from the mayor of San Juan in Puerto Rico just moments ago, directly contradicting the Trump administration, showing the chasm between what is being said and what is being felt is far bigger than 1,000 miles that separate the island from the mainland.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Just listen to Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz when she heard that acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke described what is happening in Puerto Rico as a, quote, a good news story.


ELAINE DUKE, ACTING HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I am very satisfied. I know it's a hard storm to recover from, but the amount of progress that's been made -- and I really would appreciate any support that we get. I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people. And the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.


MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: Well, maybe from where she's standing it's a good news story. When you're drinking from a creek, it's not a good news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from their buildings because -- you know, that -- I'm sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me.

You know, get -- I would ask her to come down here and visit the towns and then make a statement like that, which, frankly, it is an irresponsible statement and it contrasts with the statements of support that I have been getting since yesterday when I got that call from the White House.

This is -- damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a people are dying story.


HARLOW: Cargo still backed up at ports. The power is still out. Water in short supply. People, American citizens, still suffering. That is the real news story. No other adjectives necessary. On top of that, flash flood watches take affect later this morning across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two or more inches of rain expected to fall each day through the weekend.

We have complete coverage across the region.

Let's begin with our Rafael Romo, who joins us now.


Among the other things that the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, told us is that the aid distribution is a logistics nightmare. And when you take a look at the containers behind me here at the port of San Juan, you can begin to understand why.

According to a top executive with the Crowley (ph) shipping company, there are 10,000 containers with food, water and other necessities that have not been distributed throughout the island. And we have a lot of conflicting information coming from different places.

Governor Ricardo Rossello says that it's not 10,000, but it's only 3,000. And then the president of the Puerto Rico Association of Shipping Authorities says that none of these containers are involved with FEMA distributions. So you're getting mixed information here from all over the place.

The reality is that when we go to the communities inside the island, they say we have not received the aid we need. We're not getting any help. We're not getting any water.

We also visited yesterday a nursing home where residents were telling us that they haven't had any power for the last eight days and they were also affected by the prior hurricane, Poppy, Hurricane Irma. So it's a very dire situation.

Just to give you an idea, there's only 86 branches of local banks here that are operating, with some restrictions. So cash is also beginning to be a problem.

So the story here is that, yes, aid is getting here to Puerto Rico. Distribution is an entirely different matter, Poppy.

BERMAN: Yes, that's one of the big issues right now, just getting around the island, Rafael.

We did learn that half the island has water now.

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: Of course that means that half doesn't. But half is an improvement. We also know that the number of gas stations open -- CNN's Boris Sanchez at a gas station where cars have been lined up all night.

Boris, what are you seeing?


It really is an impressive sight. I'll get out of the way so you can see it. This gas station has been open for about two hours now but folks here have been lined up since very late last night. In fact, I talked to the first guy in line early this morning. He told me that he'd got here at about 9:00 p.m. last night. They ran out of gas, so he just parked his car, turned it off and went to sleep to wake up early this morning in hopes that they would open up again.

You're seeing this line of cars. It looks like street parking. It's not. It's about 100 or so cars stretching as far as the eye can see waiting in lines for hours to try to get a basic necessity. People here have continuously asked us, where is FEMA? Where is the aid? Where can they contact or reach out to somebody that can get them the things they need? Because it's not just lines at gas stations.

[09:05:02] I spoke to one woman who told me that she waited several hours outside of a grocery store yesterday only to get inside and discover that they had no water available. The food that she was looking for wasn't there. The shelves were barely stocked.

Worsening the problem, the forecast. There's set to be rain in Puerto Rico over the next few days. We were in a neighborhood yesterday where we -- it has a channel running through it and we were told that even on a regular day, because there's so much pollution in that channel, if there's a typical rain storm, it floods. So after Hurricane Maria, that neighborhood was totally inundated with sewage. And now they're expecting more rain there.

We saw dozens of roofs come off buildings there, second stories collapse on to first stories, people living in dire conditions wondering, where is the help?

John and Poppy.

HARLOW: They are indeed, as we heard the mayor emphasize this morning. She'll join us a little bit later.

Boris Sanchez, thank you for all the reporting to you and your team.

Now, while Puerto Rico struggles to recover, to just have running water and fuel and food in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, more rain is expected, possibly flooding this weekend. Flash flood watches go into effect at 11:00 a.m. this morning. Two to four inches of rain expected today alone.

Let's go to our meteorologist, Chad Myers, who has more.

This is the last thing that they need right now.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Sure. You know, you think it might be a blessing because people may be able to use the rain water for something, but truly it's not. Two to four inches anywhere across this island will cause flooding because the ground is just so completely saturated from what has already fallen from Harvey (ph). The gray spots there, that's 20 inches of rain or more. And some spots we know picked up almost 40 in the rain gauge itself.

Now, I would love to show you, other than just the satellite, I'd love to show you the radar, but this is what the radar looks like in San Juan in Puerto Rico. Now this is what it should look like. There should be a ball there. There should be a dish inside here that spins around and reflects back what the reflectivity is, where the rain is. This is what it looks like. This is what it should look like. It was completely destroyed. There's -- honestly, there's nothing left of that and it will take months to rebuild that because you just don't have the parts, you can't get them in there. This is something that Puerto Rico's going to deal with for a long time.

So we have satellite. And we know that there are storms coming in on satellite. Two to four inches especially from about Palmis del Mar (ph), where we had reporters there -- right there for landfall on the eastern side of Puerto Rico, right to the U.S. Virgin Islands and also the BBI itself. St. Croix, all the way through Biacas (ph) will also see significantly heavy rain. That's the eastern side that will see the most. But anywhere that sees heavy rainfall at all will flash flood because there's no place for that water to go.

John and Poppy, back to you.

BERMAN: All right, Chad Myers for us. The last thing they need. Thanks so much, Chad.

We got a sense of the food situation, the water situation. Let's talk about the power right now. At last check just 4 percent of the islands' homes and businesses have power.

Joining us now, the CEO of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Ricardo Ramos.

Sir, thank you so much for being with us.

Four percent was our last update. Has that changed? Can you give us the latest update on how many people on the island have power?

RICARDO RAMOS, CEO, PUERTO RICO ELECTRIC POWER AUTHORITY (via telephone): Yes, good morning. Thank you for the opportunity.

Yes, it has changed, but very -- very small change. We're probably about 4.5 percent. We have, of course, been working on the priorities. The priorities have been water systems. That's why there's about 50 percent of the population with water now. And the hospitals. And, you know, we have about 10 to 12 hospitals already online on the San Juan and (INAUDIBLE) area, which is part of the old metropolitan area. We have three hospitals on the west coast, (INAUDIBLE). We are operating on island -- small islands where some of the metro area is one system. (INAUDIBLE), the west coast, is another system. And we're working very hard so they can bring phones in the south (ph) with transmission lines so that we can start energizing some of the hospitals and water systems in the (INAUDIBLE) area.

HARLOW: OK. Ricardo, just -- within just a few days after Hurricane Irma struck and struck Florida a well especially hard, there were about 20,000 power, electricity workers from around the United States across Florida trying to get everything back online. How many workers do you have right now doing the same across Puerto Rico?

RAMOS: Oh, right now we have about 4,000 workers working on the electric system. But then this weekend we're supposed to get about 1,000 more from the U.S., from the private transmission building companies. And right after that, we'll start getting some distribution crews from sister utilities in the United States.

BERMAN: Is 4,000 enough? Do you need more than that? Again, I mean it was 20,000 the day after Irma struck Florida. One might wonder why there aren't more people now there working on the lines, sir?

[09:10:05] RAMOS: No, we certainly need more. We just finished the whole, you know, damage scope and restoration scope. And we'll be working in San Juan, of course, putting back together (INAUDIBLE), you know, standing up the towers and the poles.

But we do need help. The help that we're getting in this weekend is essentially (ph) for the transmission system in order to be able to reach the different towns around the island. And, you know, they are sort of a private company. They do work in a military fashion with their own camps (ph). So they move as the construction progresses. And they'll have a well-defined scope, you know, from point one to point two. And as soon as we get the help from the sister utilities, I think we'll try to reach -- I think our net (ph) is probably about 7,000 total, compared to Florida. I mean Florida is much bigger, of course. But our terrain here is more -- a lot more challenging. You know, the mountain range, the forest. It's very hard work.

But certainly our workers already need some relief. They've been working since Irma nonstop. And it's a much -- a much, much welcome help. We're also getting some additional help from New York Power Authority. Governor Cuomo has been great in sending us help. And I just hanged up with the governor of Florida, who is also going to be sending us help for the utilities in Florida.

HARLOW: But, Ricardo, just before you go, it sounds like you have a message to any governor in any state, right, send us -- send us more help. Send us more workers. Is that right?

RAMOS: Yes. Yes. And, of course, we need to consider the fuel situation that we are having. And so we're working on the logistics also.


RAMOS: To establish our own fuel logistics, because if we get all of those crews here, then that will basically exacerbating or increasing the fuel -- the distribution challenge. So there's some tankers coming in and we will establish our own logistics for fuel when those crews arrive.

HARLOW: OK. Richard Ramos, good luck and thank you.

RAMOS: Thank you very much. HARLOW: Ahead for us, the president this morning saying big decisions will have to be made about rebuilding Puerto Rico. What does he mean? We're going to ask a FEMA official next.

Also, the price is not right. The Health and Human Services secretary spending big on -- well, big spending on flights that go beyond the U.S. on the taxpayer dime. He went on international government planes with his wife along for the ride.

BERMAN: And a CNN exclusive. Black activist accounts on FaceBook and Twitter linked to Russia. The mission, to cause racial tension in the country.



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: (Inaudible) recovery in Puerto Rico. General Jeffrey Buchanan, let's listen in.

GENERAL JEFFREY BUCHANAN: (Inaudible) significantly more logistic support to help organize the supply effort and help with distribution with the supplies that the governor talked about with fuel, food and water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have to reiterate that there's only one question per media outlet. I need cooperation with the media.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can I answer that question also from the (inaudible) aspect? I think it's important to understand the whole community aspect of this as well. Puerto Rico National Guard has got a large and capable police department. It has a fire department and an EMS organization and a Puerto Rico Management Agency.

All of those things are absolutely critical to the response. So, when we start comparing disasters, we don't like to do that because every disaster is unique in its own way.

Puerto Rico has some very capable and dedicated people that are helping their fellow citizens and we are using them all as a whole community. That may not have happened in Haiti. I was not there. That may not have happened anywhere else, but in Puerto Rico you have a whole community of folks working together to save lives, protect lives, and sustain lives.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a question for the general and it's a two-part question. We are now one week and two days since Maria walloped the island. Why do you think, General, now is when you are coming in with all of these resources?

Secondly, what was FEMA doing exactly after the storm when there were "Washington Post" reporters getting into towns where people had not seen anybody from the government? Can you take us through what steps you took us after the storm to address the situation that was taking place?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure. I will start and hand it to you. I am John Rayben (ph). I'm the acting administrator in FEMA Region II. FEMA Region II include New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Thank you for your question. I appreciate the word wallop, and I used catastrophic but might take wallop as well. We had immediately post- Maria, prior to Maria, we had put all of our folks here into our distribution center to make sure that they were prepared to withstand the storm.

We had about 300 folks or so here in Puerto Rico sheltering in place for the storm. Once the storm passed, we immediately did welfare checks to make sure that everybody was safe and sound and then we immediately engaged our partners in Puerto Rico to start identifying how we were going to handle this massive response.

HARLOW: All right. We are monitoring this press conference from FEMA and also the three-star general now in charge of the response in Puerto Rico. We will bring you more as we have it.

But we are joined now by the deputy administrator for FEMA, Daniel Kaniewski, who is joining us. Thank you for being here as we continue to monitor that. I want to get your response, first, to the desperation and frustration heard on this network this morning from the mayor of San Juan.

Responding to the acting director of homeland security, Elaine Duke, to what she said calling the response of the United States government in Puerto Rico a good news story. Well, here's how the mayor of San Juan see this.


MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: This is not a good news story. This is a people are dying story. This is life or death story. This is there's a truck load of stuff that cannot be taken to people story.


HARLOW: She says this is anything but a good news story. What do you say to her?

DANIEL KANIEWSKI, DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR, FEMA: I will say that as emergency managers, we are never satisfied with the response until every disaster survivor has been cared for. If I understand correctly what the secretary was saying, I believe she was saying that she is satisfied with the effort put forward by the responders on the ground whether they be federal, state or local. We are working together as hard as we can to help the people of Puerto Rico.

BERMAN: I don't think anyone questions the effort of the people on the ground. I think one of the major questions is, are there enough people on the ground and when they got there and when were they coordinated?

There is now a three-star general, Jeffrey Buchanan, in charge of the recovery effort. The House Homeland Security adviser, Tom Bossert, said yesterday, you know -- he was asked why did it take eight days, and he said, well, it was not need eight days ago. It's needed right now.

[09:20:12] I imagine one of the frustrating things for you in emergency management and response is the disconnect between the effort you are putting put in and what is on the island. How do you explain to these people there why they are not seeing the response that the administration says is there?

KANIEWSKI: Thank you. Let me clarify that that three-star general, General Buchanan is in charge of military operations. However, the military is in support of civil authorities. The military works for FEMA and FEMA works for the governor.

So, the military is not in charge here. The military, as they have been, since well before this hurricane came to shore, they are in support of civilian authorities. Now to your second question about logistics. It has been a tremendous challenge.

It has been a tremendous challenge because this is not a disaster on the U.S. mainland where we can do out traditional response of sending in tractor trailer trucks and helicopters right away.

We are having to ship that across the ocean to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and we are flying supplies in as fast as we possibly can. The initial aftermath -- we are still dealing with several logistical challenges at the airport because the air traffic control system has been down and it's causing a very limited number of flights to get in.

I am pleased to report that we are and have now opened two additional airports for relief operations, Roosevelt Roads and Aquadia (ph). Again, to the Herculean efforts of the Department of Defense for opening these air strips and allowing additional commodities to get in.

HARLOW: So, that is great news about these two additional airports and we are all grateful for the responders on the ground. There, though, are more and more comparisons as you know to the response the U.S. response in Haiti, another country, after the earthquake there.

Here's what happened in that scenario. Day one, a three-star general was appointed after the earthquake. Day two, 9,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops deployed, and day nine, which is where we are now after Maria, 13,000 troops in and around Haiti. Why has that response then in another country and that response has not been matched in number on American soil in Puerto Rico?

KANIEWSKI: Well, I can't do a comparison on numbers with you right now, but what I can say is that there are millions of meals and liters of water that are on the island right now that are in the process of being distributed. Now we have seen video images of cargo containers sitting in the port. I can assure you that those are not FEMA containers. Those are retail goods that probably been sitting there for days or weeks.

FEMA containers and commodities are going and have been received at regional distribution centers. Those regional distribution centers then distributed to the 78 municipalities.

That process is working albeit slow and not nearly as fast as any of us would like. That said, we expect significant improvement in operations with additional manpower being on the ground, both in the military and civilian side.

And we look forward to distributing those commodities to those in need at a much greater pace in the days ahead.

BERMAN: All right. Daniel Kaniewski, deputy administrator of FEMA, thanks so much for being with us. Thanks for your work and good luck in the days ahead.

KANIEWSKI: Thank you.

BERMAN: We will get reaction now from CNN's Bill Weir who is live in San Juan. Bill, I don't know what you can hear down there because the communications are sparse, but we have been listening to FEMA officials tell us they are trying and getting the resources down there.

But the big question that you have been asking and we have been asking is despite the fact the administration says things are going well and they are sending whatever is being asked for down there, why aren't the people on the ground especially outside San Juan seeing or feeling this?

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That is the question. That's the question we get asked when we roll into the towns, either in the mountains or in the island of Vieques, when they come up and say are you FEMA?

Any sort of outside contact is this blessed moment of hope and then their faces fall when we say we are not, and we give them whatever granola bars we can spare. What's so interesting the dichotomy and yes, the FEMA personnel who have been here, these guys are doing (inaudible) work.

You know, they were in Irma and in Harvey and some teams are in the Mexico quake. So, yes, this is a quadruple whammy for these guys, but the numbers, they just don't have the numbers as we have been talking about in Haiti.

The dichotomy between the federal response and the local response, as you can hear behind us, on day nine, some local volunteers are finally chainsawing up the trees that have fallen down in really the best and richest part of San Juan.

[09:25:09] This little bubble of normalcy here. I saw this kind of activity hours after Irma hit the Florida Keys. So, you know, this country is beleaguered on a good day, 40 percent of the folks here live below the poverty line. The infrastructure is shot. It's been neglected. There's $70 billion in debt before the storm hit.

So, it's cascading series of problems, but in terms of the urgency of this response, it seems like everything is reactionary. You know, the other thing about the Haiti comparison, you can't predict an earthquake.

We saw this storm coming for days. So, we can blame and point fingers after people are safe, but up in the mountains, husbands are bearing their lives. Out in the islands people are catching rain water to give their children and rationing crackers, and it would be nice to see a response to match the level of desperation we have been seeing all week.

HARLOW: For American citizens. Bill Weir, thank you for being there and bringing the stories to us. Obviously, we are all over this, and we will stay on this.

Some other news to get you, Tom Price, the health and human services secretary, says, he will pay back some of the costs of flying on those private planes, and the backlash though, is growing, is it going to be enough to save his job?