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Despite Progress, Half of Storm-hit Puerto Ricans Lack Clean Water

By VOA News October 01, 2017

Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, said Sunday that the number of Puerto Ricans in shelters following Hurricane Maria has decreased significantly.

"The total of the people in shelter has been reduced. We are about at 8,800 refugees at this juncture and 139 shelters," he said, noting that a week ago there were 500 shelters across the island. "We are consolidating, making sure people get to their homes when they can't get to their homes, and providing alternative housing in the meantime."

Rossello also said that the number of U.S. Defense Department personnel on the ground increased to 6,400 Sunday - up from 4,600 just 36 hours earlier.

But almost a week and a half after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, about half of the island's 3.4 million residents still lack access to clean drinking water, according to the Department of Defense, while 95 percent are without electricity.

Rossello noted that some recovery has been made. He said 51 of the island's 60 hospitals are open, and airports and seaports are receiving shipments.

"We have 100 percent of land-line telephones working now," Rossello said, "although we still don't have the robust telecom network ... we're only at 33 percent."

He said the island's roads are being cleared, but there are still some communities where the hurricane's devastation has made travel difficult.

Trucks, diesel on the way

The U.S. Defense Department said 100 trucks carrying diesel and gasoline fuel will arrive by barge in San Juan, the island's capital and largest city, by Monday. There have been complaints that food and other necessities were not being delivered across the island because there were not enough trucks and truck drivers to make the deliveries.

Life on the island remains hard, however, with residents lining up in the sweltering heat to get gas, food and cash.

VOA's Celia Mendoza, who is in Puerto Rico, says all store transactions are in cash because shops do not have the electricity for card transactions. There are long lines at cash machines, Mendoza reports, with customers hoping to get access to their funds before the machines' generators are shut down when the banks close.

Trump Twitter tirade

U.S. President Donald Trump followed up Sunday on bitter Twitter criticism the day before against San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been critical of the Trump administration's hurricane efforts.

"We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates,......people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military." he wrote Sunday on Twitter, presumably referring to Cruz in calling out "politically motivated ingrates."

Cruz, whose home has been damaged in the storm, is living in a shelter with her family. "There's only one goal and it's saving lives," Cruz said Sunday on ABC's This Week, when asked about Trump's comments against her. "Any dialogue that goes on just has to produce results. All I did last week or actually even this week is ask for help."

The Republican president initiated his tweets Saturday, some of which were apparently deleted minutes later, by suggesting Cruz's criticism was instigated by the Democratic Party.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that it has deployed assessment teams to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to assess oil sites, and chemical facilities in Puerto Rico. The agency says it is also working to assess the conditions of water and sewage treatment plants in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Critics say 'Too little, too late'

A three-star general was named Thursday to head the relief effort, and a 1,000 bed hospital ship, the Comfort, departed Friday from its home port in the U.S. state of Virginia to assist in the recovery. But critics say the response may prove to be a case of too little, too late.

Russel Honoré, who commanded the military response after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the military deployments to Puerto Rico should have been started at least four days earlier. Health officials say worse days and weeks may still be ahead as authorities battle the massive task of restoring clean water and sanitation, not to mention providing food and shelter.

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