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US government ramps up emergency response as Puerto Rico faces humanitarian, economic crises


Puerto Rico is battling potentially catastrophic humanitarian, agricultural and economic crises as the island reels from its worst hurricane impact in nearly a century.

Several Puerto Rican officials tweeted about the state of despair facing their constituents, who will likely deal with Maria's devastating impacts for months.

Gov. Ricardo A. Rossello has called for additional assistance from the United States government as Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents cope with loss of power, drinkable water and fuel.


Bayamón Mayor Ramon Luis Rivera called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to accelerate the process so that aid can flow to the government and municipalities in need.

With millions still without power, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulia Cruz told ABC News that people are “gasping for air” in the brutal heat.

"What's out there is total devastation, total annihilation," Cruz said.

“I personally have taken people out and put them in ambulances because their generator has run out,” she said.

As many still struggle to contact loved ones on and off the island, power has been restored to Centro Médico Hospital in San Juan and San Pablo Hospital in Bayamón, according to FEMA.

However, Puerto Rico's severely damaged electrical grid may be beyond repair and could require rebuilding, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

President Donald Trump addressed the situation on Tuesday and announced a planned visit to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands next week.

“Both have been absolutely devastated by Hurricane Maria, and we’re doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people,” Trump said.

Gov. Rossello thanked Trump on Twitter for “his leadership, quick response and commitment to our people.”

The president also authorized an increase in federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures in Puerto Rico.

Maria aftermath - Puerto Rico

Jose Garcia Vicente walks through rubble of his destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)


As search and rescue operations continue, FEMA said over 500 people have been saved or assisted.

More than 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, 70,000 tarps and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting have been distributed to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. An additional 7 million meals and 4 million liters of water were en route as of Tuesday.

Economic impacts

The dire situation is a severe blow to Puerto Rico's already fragile economy. AccuWeather estimates that the havoc Maria has wreaked on the island totals up to at least $10 billion in damage, reducing its $101.3 billion gross domestic product (GDP) by 10 percent.

“This would be the equivalent of the United States’ GDP dropping from $19 trillion to $17 trillion or a drop nearly twice as great as the contraction of the U.S. economy due to the meltdown in 2007-2008,” said AccuWeather Founder, President and Chairman Dr. Joel N. Myers.

Puerto Rico’s tourism industry, which made up 6 percent of its GDP in 2016, will suffer significantly as many Caribbean cruise ports remain closed. The Port of San Juan is the Caribbean's largest and busiest cruise port.

“They were in a 10-year recession, $70 billion in government debt and now you have these things destroy the tourism industry,” said Bill Kirk, chief executive officer of Weather Trends International.

A number of cruise lines have canceled sailings to and from Puerto Rico through at least the end of September.

Puerto Rico’s billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry is also threatened. Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing were the island’s largest exports in 2016, comprising 72.4 percent of total exports, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

“There’s no power, so there’s no way for these huge facilities to make medical devices,” said Kirk. “People don’t realize that it was a huge part of Puerto Rico’s economy.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to take action against critical shortages of “life-saving and life-sustaining” medications manufactured in Puerto Rico.

Agricultural impacts

Agriculture makes up 0.8 percent of Puerto Rico’s GDP, and with only 6 percent of the land being suitable for crop growth, the island’s agricultural sector is vulnerable to impacts from land-falling hurricanes.

Maria decimated about 80 percent, or $780 million, of Puerto Rico’s crop value, delivering one of the costliest blows the island’s agricultural industry has ever experienced, according to Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture Secretary Carlos Flores Ortega.

“That’s going to have both a direct food supply hit and a financial hit that will be noticed in the short, medium and long term,” said Dr. Eric Stern, professor at the University of Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cyber-Security.

One farmer told the New York Times that Maria knocked down each of his 14,000 plantain trees and destroyed his other crops.

"There will be no food in Puerto Rico,” José Rivera said. “There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico and there won’t be any for a year or longer.”