SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Maria whipped Puerto Rico with Irma-level winds, drenched the island with Harvey-level flooding, crippled communications, decimated buildings and damaged a dam that puts downstream residents at risk of catastrophe.
But help has been slow to come to communities where the devastation is described as “apocalyptic,” officials and residents argue.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the island faces a humanitarian crisis. He urged Congress to approve a commensurate aid package as the U.S. commonwealth, already hammered by a prolonged economic crisis, tries to get back on its feet.
The governor joined others in emphasizing that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
“We need something tangible, a bill that actually answers to our need right now,” he said. “Otherwise, there will be … a massive exodus to the (mainland) United States.”
Leading Democrats called for swift action to help the island.
Hillary Clinton urged the Defense Department to send a Navy medical ship, while Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for Republicans to join with Democrats to pass a robust relief package.
“The Trump administration must act immediately to make available additional Department of Defense resources for search-and-rescue operations, law enforcement and transportation needs,” Pelosi said in a statement.
“Our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands deserve to know that their government will be there for them, without question or hesitation.”
President Donald Trump has pledged federal help for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
A White House official said Trump is planning to visit Puerto Rico, but a date has not been set because of infrastructure concerns on the island.
Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert and Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long were traveling to Puerto Rico, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
“The federal response has been anything but slow,” Sanders said. “There’s been an unprecedented push through of billions of dollars in federal assistance.”
Airplanes and ships loaded with meals, water and generators have been arriving or are headed to Puerto Rico and other affected Caribbean islands, FEMA said in a statement.
More than 10,000 federal employees are in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands helping with research and rescue efforts and moving goods, FEMA tweeted.
In a tweet Sunday, Clinton said, “President Trump, Sec. Mattis, and DOD should send the Navy, including the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico now. These are American citizens.”
Puerto Rico faces a more immediate danger.
The Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest corner is releasing water after suffering a “critical infrastructure failure” after the Category 5 storm.
“Some of the dam has fallen apart,” Rossello said. “Now we are making sure that we can assess if the other part will fall down as well. It represents a great danger for about an estimated 70,000 people.”
Residents below the dam were told to evacuate on Friday, according to the National Guard. With more than 95 percent of wireless cell sites out of service, authorities had to physically go to thousands of homes to warn people of the potential collapse.
Rossello said that while most people in the vicinity had evacuated, efforts were still underway to get people out in peripheral areas.