FEMA: Corps of Engineers to rebuild Puerto Rico's infrastructure

Millions still without power, water, gas

By ANNECLAIRE STAPLETON , KATHERINE GRISE AND JASON HANNA , CNN
Headline Goes Here Joe Raedle/Getty Images

People wait in line for gas in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Millions of the US commonwealth's residents are without power, water or gas more than a week after Hurricane Maria.

(CNN) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will rebuild Puerto Rico's infrastructure, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official said.

More than a week after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, the island is dealing with a humanitarian crisis as millions remain without electricity, water or gas.

"We're not going to rebuild the power grid overnight, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just been mission-assigned, in the last 24 hours, to do just that," FEMA Deputy Director Daniel Kaniewski told CNN. "In addition to generators and fuel, we have assigned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild" the U.S. commonwealth's infrastructure.

Most of the island is without power, with the exception of people and facilities using generators, the U.S. Energy Department says. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Thursday that power restoration would be slow because with hits from Maria -- and Hurricane Irma earlier in the month -- "this infrastructure has honestly collapsed."

3-star general to lead military's efforts

At least 16 people have died in Puerto Rico as a result of the storm, Rosselló said Thursday.

The Pentagon has appointed Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan to lead all military hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, U.S. defense officials said Thursday.

Buchanan is a three-star general and the commander of U.S. Army North (5th Army). Buchanan has served four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday called for the Defense Department to take over short-term relief and recovery efforts. Rubio acknowledged FEMA's role in providing federal assistance to local governments, but said the Defense Department is the "only entity capable of executing a recovery effort of this scale and complexity."

Jones Act waived; some supplies reportedly sit at port

President Donald Trump on Thursday authorized a 10-day waiver of the Jones Act, a federal law that limits shipping to U.S. ports by foreign vessels. Puerto Rico's governor and other U.S. officials had argued that a waiver would expedite the shipping of supplies to the island.

But some supplies appear to be sitting, undistributed, at Puerto Rico's main Port of San Juan -- though CNN has received conflicting information about the number of idle containers.

Jose Ayala, vice president of operations for the Crowley shipping company, told CNN Thursday that at least 10,000 containers were sitting in the San Juan port, filled with "food, water, medical aid, everything."

But Omar Marrero, executive director of Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority, said 7,500 containers were sitting at the port Thursday. And Hernan Ayala, president of the Puerto Rico Shipping Association, said none of the idle containers involved aid sent by FEMA.

All FEMA cargo has been dispatched from the port to the rest of the island, Hernan Ayala said.

He said the containers still there held items the port usually brings in -- "food, provisions, refrigerated cargo, all kinds of general merchandise foods, furniture, liquor, manufacturing products, all kinds of cargo that we normally get."

Part of the reason for distribution backlogs at the port is that only 20 percent of truck drivers have reported back to work since Hurricane Maria's landfall, according to a representative for Rosselló.

A diesel-fuel shortage and blocked roads also are complicating distribution efforts. Even contacting drivers is a problem because cell towers are down.

Rosselló said Thursday he signed an executive order to allow more flexibility for supply distribution.

Starting Thursday, truck drivers carrying essentials became exempt from a government-mandated evening curfew instituted to prevent looting, he said, and certain gas stations have been designated just for trucks at night.

Search and rescue

FEMA said its search-and-rescue teams had saved or assisted 843 people in Puerto Rico as of Thursday morning. The U.S. Coast Guard saved or assisted 15 people, according to FEMA.

Shelters

As of Thursday morning, 10,114 people were in 160 shelters in Puerto Rico, FEMA said.

Gasoline stations and hospitals

Of 1,100 gas stations in Puerto Rico, 689 were operating as of Thursday morning, Rosselló said. The distribution of diesel to hospitals, which will use them to operate power generators, increased over the last day, the governor said.

Forty-four of the 47 hospitals that the federal government has assessed in Puerto Rico are operational, FEMA said. Twenty-two other hospitals have yet to be assessed.

On Monday, the island will receive 125,000 barrels of gas. "Given those numbers, we can say that there is gasoline in Puerto Rico," the governor said.

FEMA: Nearly 1 million meals distributed

Nearly 1 million meals and about 2 million liters of water have been given out at 11 distribution centers in Puerto Rico as of Thursday morning, said John Rabin, acting regional administrator for the FEMA.

FEMA expects another 3 million meals and 2 million liters of water will be handed out over the next few days, Rabin said.

More police to Vieques

Extra police and military troops will be sent Thursday to the island of Vieques, 7 miles off Puerto Rico, Rosselló said.

Asked if this was in response to reported looting on Vieques, Rosselló said he had not heard those reports.

Bank closures

Many Puerto Ricans are having trouble withdrawing from banks because of closures, and because many ATMs are not working or are not being reloaded. At least half of all bank branches on the island were closed Wednesday, said Zoime Alvarez, vice president at the Association of Banks of Puerto Rico.

Banco Popular, a major Puerto Rican bank, told CNNMoney on Wednesday that only 57 of its 169 branches were open for business. And only 150 of its 600 ATMs were operating.

Why? There weren't enough drivers to move the cash, bank branches were running on generators and can't get security software back online and some bank employees did not have enough gas to drive to work.

$40 million available for road and bridge repairs

The Federal Highway Administration on Thursday announced the immediate availability of $40 million to help restore essential service on roads and bridges damaged by Hurricane Maria.

This money supplements the $2.5 million in emergency relief funds awarded to Puerto Rico for damages related to Hurricane Irma.

Florida offers students in-state tuition

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who met with Rosselló in San Juan on Thursday, said Florida will offer in-state tuition to Puerto Rican students displaced by the two recent hurricanes.

Airports

San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and eight other airports in Puerto Rico were open, or open with restrictions, the Defense Department said Thursday.

Seaports

The Port of San Juan and seven other ports were open Thursday, some with restrictions, the department said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement that shipping containers still at the San Juan port held items that the port usually imports. The statement should have been attributed to Hernan Ayala, president of the Puerto Rico Shipping Association.

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