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Trump To Visit Puerto Rico As Humanitarian Crisis Continues


President Trump is scheduled to fly to Puerto Rico tomorrow to survey the damage from Hurricane Maria. The visit comes amid a humanitarian crisis there. Food, clean water and electricity are still in short supply throughout the island. NPR's John Burnett is on the line with us from the Emergency Operations Center in San Juan. Hey there, John.


MCEVERS: So how are people doing there on the eve of the president's trip?

BURNETT: Well, there's definitely signs of improvement. You can see that things are getting better in San Juan, where almost 400,000 people live. The lines at gas stations are a lot shorter. People are saying they're waiting only about a half hour to fill up compared to 10 hours a week ago. This morning I saw a few more stores and restaurants open, though they still don't have power. But again, this is the capital, where you expect services are going to be restarted first.

MCEVERS: What do we know about how things are going in the rest of the island?

BURNETT: Well, let's listen to Army Lieutenant General Jeff Buchanan, who arrived last week. He's in charge of the entire U.S. military effort to help bring Puerto Rico back to life. He spoke to NPR this morning.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL JEFF BUCHANAN: We're rapidly building up our response capability. You know, when I first got here Thursday night, we had about 25 helicopters, about 4,000 troops. Right now we've got 44 helicopters, more than 7,000 troops.

BURNETT: You can see it, Kelly. There are more military choppers in the air and more army vehicles zooming around the highways. But again, there are still cities and towns that are completely cut off.

MCEVERS: What about trucks, delivery trucks to get supplies around? Isn't that also a problem?

BURNETT: Well, General Buchanan had something to say about how really hard the land routes are. Let's hear him once again.

BUCHANAN: Our biggest challenge right now is on the interior of the island because we don't have roads open because there's so many trees down. We're trying to clear those routes. But in the meantime, we're dependent on air. Much of that is military air to actually move that fuel, food and water to places that desperately need it.

MCEVERS: John, it seems like this hurricane has really heightened Puerto Rico's sense of insecurity. They need to know that as a U.S. commonwealth, they have the full backing of the federal government here just like Florida and Texas did after their hurricanes, right?

BURNETT: It's interesting. Governor Ricardo Rossello delivered a message this morning that he wants people in the U.S. mainland to hear the day before the president's visit. He referred to recent polls in the U.S. that show a majority of Americans don't even realize that Puerto Ricans are full U.S. citizens. Here's the governor.


RICARDO ROSSELLO: Think of Puerto Ricans as constituents of your own state. Think about it as a moral imperative because we are U.S. citizens but, more importantly, because we're all equal as human beings.

MCEVERS: And John, you were out and about in San Juan this morning. What are people saying about President Trump's visit? What kind of reception is he likely to get?

BURNETT: Well, first I want to play a piece of tape from Aura Vasquez (ph), who works for the Puerto Rican Senate. I met her at a popular seafood restaurant that just reopened.

AURA VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: She sort of echoes what the governor said - that this is a teaching moment. They want the world to know there is a little island called Puerto Rico and they're all U.S. citizens. Then her friend Javier Barreto sitting next to her chimed in. He's a driver for the government's Department of Family Services.

JAVIER BARRETO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: So Barreto is clearly in the camp of Puerto Ricans who want statehood. The message he wants to tell the president is how much the island appreciates all the USA, the Army and FEMA are sending. And he said if it weren't for them being a U.S. territory, they'd be really in disastrous shape like Cuba or Haiti after a hurricane.

One more piece of tape, Kelly, that I got in San Juan - and I think she really best represents the mindset here 12 days after the storm. This is Norima Cinerazzo, a cook in the historic section of San Juan.

NORIMA CINERAZZO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: She says, "I don't feel like, oh, wow, the U.S. president is coming. Isn't that great? He can come if he wants to, but I have other things to worry about. Do I have a job? When will I get power? Where will my next meal come from?"

MCEVERS: That's NPR's John Burnett reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thanks a lot, John.

BURNETT: It's a pleasure, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.