Where Recovery Stands In Puerto Rico

Oct 5, 2017
Originally published on October 5, 2017 9:48 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, much of the island still lacks power, clean water, medical supplies. The death toll has reached 34. Chris Krebs plays a key role in the Trump administration's response to the disaster. He's assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security, and he was just in Puerto Rico. He's returned and is in Washington, D.C.

Good morning.

CHRISTOPHER KREBS: Good morning, David. How are you?

GREENE: I'm good. Thank you.

I wonder - President Trump was in Puerto Rico this week, said you know, the administration has done an incredible job, A-plus, as in Texas and Florida. Do you agree with that?

KREBS: Well, here's what I'd say. He's leading the full effort of the federal government in support of the state and local government - Governor Rossello, all the mayors down there. And from what I've seen - I have been down there twice. I was down there last Monday and then again last Friday, looking to get back down there either Friday or Monday. Every time I've been down there - and I have many people on the ground in the island that work for me - we're seeing progress every day. There's no question that we're making progress every day. Still focused on saving lives but, at the same time, getting the services - the critical services back up and running to ensure that the people of Puerto Rico have what they need to go about their daily lives and get some degree of normalcy back in their lives.

GREENE: Sounds a little less self-congratulatory than what we heard from the president, a little more measured.

KREBS: You know, I'm not (laughter) in the job of giving grades to anybody. I'm just focused on getting the job done and making the lives of the American people in Puerto Rico a little bit better.

GREENE: Let me ask you - we had one of my colleagues on this morning who was traveling around with a federal disaster medical team and described this dramatic moment where they heard about a hospital, they were told, where there was the smell of decomposed bodies, that the hospital was shutting down. They rushed there as quickly as they could to find out that much of that was not true - that there was, you know, a lot of - you know, some misinformation out there. But is that the reality? Without information, without communication - is it that reactive, reactionary and desperate right now?

KREBS: You know, I think there's a little bit of truth to that. But generally speaking, I think there's a fairly good lay down in Puerto Rico and also in the Virgin Islands. There's over 17,000 federal workers. That's FEMA, Department of Defense and you name what other department or agency across the central government. There's 17,000 folks down in the islands. We've made contact with every community. Of all the hospitals down there, there are 15 that are back on the grid; 50 are on generator power. One of them is off the grid. It closed - or, you know, no generator power. And then for those that are on generator power, we prioritized fuel deliveries.

And that is the No. 1 priority, is hospitals and dialysis centers - making sure they have the resources they need, whether it's fuel, food, water, pharmaceuticals, medicine, you know, what have you. That's the top-line effort. But on the communications piece, it was a challenge right after landfall. It was a challenge. Like I said, I have a number of people in Puerto Rico. There are a number of FEMA personnel that were kind of buttoned up, rode out the storm. I mean, as a matter of fact, FEMA was on the ground in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands before Irma. You know, keep in mind that this is the second hurricane to hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico...

GREENE: Yeah.

KREBS: ...This season, two Cat 4's, by the way. So we had people there. They rode it out. We stocked before Irma, stocked after Irma before Maria and were ready for the storm. But, you know, when you talk about the force of the impact and the impact on the communications services and talk about the power...

GREENE: I mean, the island was totally knocked out. It was totally knocked out. I mean, you couldn't...

KREBS: Yeah, yeah. It's - yeah, it took some time. But I, personally - my organization in DHS is specifically responsible for coordinating with the communications providers. I've been working very closely with the AT&Ts, Verizon, Sprint, Claro, the folks that provide the daily communications services. And we've made a lot of progress. But the permanent infrastructure, those cell sites, that's going to take some time to get back up. In the meantime, what they're doing is focusing on getting some temporary communications services back on the ground, talking about cell...

GREENE: I see, to kind of carry you along in the interim. Can I just shift to talking about the supplies you were talking about?

KREBS: Yep.

GREENE: President Trump pointed the finger at Puerto Rican truck drivers, saying, you know, you've got to do more to get the supplies out there. And he said, on a local level, they have to give us more help. And I just think about an island that has lost practically everything. Is it fair to criticize the local community, saying you got to do more here? Is that fair?

KREBS: Well, the way it works under federal statute for emergency management is that the federal government is in support of state and local government. It is a team effort. It's a team effort. But, you know, every disaster is different. And when the local government, when the local service providers - when they're in victim status, it does create some challenges, particularly in a complicated logistical environment like Puerto Rico.

But, you know, on that note, I'll say that it has been a team effort. Everybody's pulling the same direction. We're trying everything we can do to get the people of Puerto Rico back up and running, getting their services back up. And on that note, I mean, we are truly seeing the best of people. This is a team effort, like I said. Volunteer organizations - you're seen a number of celebrity chefs down there helping out. Everybody's chipping in. It's not just a federal response. It's private sector volunteers, state, local and federal.

GREENE: OK. That is Chris Krebs. He is assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security, playing a key role in the Trump administration's response in Puerto Rico. Thanks so much for the time.

KREBS: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.