October 4, 2017 at 11:13 AM
CAGUAS, PUERTO RICO — The Puerto Rico that President Trump saw during his four-hour visit on Tuesday afternoon was that of Angel Pérez Otero, the mayor of Guaynabo, a wealthy San Juan suburb known for its amenity-driven gated communities that was largely spared when Hurricane Maria hit two weeks ago.
Pérez Otero led Trump and his entourage on a walking tour of a neighborhood where high-speed winds had blown out some second-story windows and knocked over a few trees — but where life seemed to be returning to normal, thanks to assistance from the government. Neighbors stood outside their homes ready to warmly greet the president, their phones powered up and ready to snap photos.
One homeowner told Trump that he lost a couple of windows and still had not regained electricity, but was never worried about his family's safety.
"We have a good house, thank God," he told the president.
"That's fantastic," Trump said. "Well, we're going to help you out. Have a good time."
If the president had traveled a little deeper into the island, to the communities that sustained some of the heaviest damage, he would have witnessed a very different Puerto Rico.
Ten miles southeast of Guaynabo is the city of Caguas, nestled in a valley ringed by steep sierras and narrow mountain passes, with homes built densely on the edges of gravity-defying slopes. These hills were stripped naked by Maria's malicious winds, leaving the trees without leaves and fruit, their bare branches contorted in painful postures. Houses that withstood tropical rain and wind for decades were blown off their foundations and destroyed by toppled vegetation. Twisted metal roofs landed in creeks all over the once-lush region.
The gravity of Caguas's devastation hit Mayor William Miranda Torres when he saw the fallen ancient trees of the botanical garden where his father, the longtime Caguas mayor known as "El Viejo," had his ashes spread after he died of cancer in 2010.
"That's when it became hard to hold back the tears," he said. "No matter how prepared you think you are, you can't be prepared for something like this."
In Guaynabo, the conversations, usually in English, are growing more positive, with local officials listing what they see as measures of success: All airports and nearly all ports have reopened, thousands of federal workers are on the ground, more than 65 percent of grocery and big-box stores have reopened, 64 of 68 hospitals are open, and roughly 70 percent of gas stations are operational.
But here in Caguas there remains a sense of desperation, with Miranda Torres rattling off a much more dire list of statistics in Spanish: Nearly 1 in 10 residents were severely affected by the storm's destruction. More than 1,200 homes were flattened or suffered major damage. At least one person at a shelter died of diabetes complications after not having access to medical care, and two people killed themselves.
Many more could be dead, not just in Caguas but in many rural municipalities where hospitals shut down and lifesaving medical treatment was out of reach for several days. And it is unclear how many people drowned in flooding or were trapped by mounds of tumbling mud.
'Nothing short of a miracle'
After the neighborhood tour in Guaynabo, Trump traveled to the nearby Calvary Chapel, an evangelical church that's especially popular with conservatives and mainland Americans who have moved to Puerto Rico.
The church, which has a number of locations across the United States, has received large shipments of donated food, water and survival gear to distribute. Members track these donations on the church Facebook page. On Thursday, meals arrived on a chartered plane. On Sunday, 7,000 pounds of food arrived at the airport. On Monday, six pallets of food. The church is awaiting the arrival of a shipping container packed with more than 40,000 pounds of food and supplies.
Early Tuesday, the church told its Facebook followers that it expected a visit from the mayor and Puerto Rico's governor, "along with other special guests."
"Everyone is invited — especially if you and your family are in need," the church wrote.
Standing outside the church with a group of reporters, Trump said the government response here "has been something like I've never seen before."
"What has happened in terms of recovery, what has happened in terms of saving lives — 16 lives, that's a lot, but we compare that to the thousands of people that died in other hurricanes that were not nearly as severe," Trump said, citing an official death toll that was several days old.
It wasn't until after Air Force One took off Tuesday that the government updated its official death toll from 16 to 34, allowing reality to again settle on the island that maneuvered itself into the most flattering light possible for the president's visit.
Throughout the day, Trump was surrounded by local government officials willing to back up his assertions.
Pérez Otero, the Guaynabo mayor, said that mayors need to do all they can for their residents instead of blaming problems on the federal government. Over the weekend, he came to Trump's defense when San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz accused the administration of not doing enough to help. In interviews with conservative outlets, Pérez Otero accused Cruz of not participating in relief efforts as other mayors have, an attack Trump quickly adopted.
"Your people are doing the right stuff for us," Pérez Otero told Trump on Tuesday. "And that's my experience over here in Guaynabo in the helping of thousands and thousands of people. So thank you, thank you, Mr. President."
A reporter asked Trump whether he had a message for Puerto Ricans who still do not have power, food or clean water.
"The power grid, honestly, was devastated before the hurricanes even hit — and then the hurricanes hit and they wiped them out," Trump said, adding that numerous generators have brought the island back to life. "Again, the job that's been done here is, really, nothing short of a miracle. It has been incredible."
Meanwhile, in nearby Caguas, Miranda Torres was trying to make up for lost time. In the 48 hours after the hurricane, communication was impossible. Since then, he had lost count of how many times he had traveled to San Juan to tell the central government what his people needed: food, water and generators. But it took more than a week for a trickle of supplies to reach the town.
For days, the shelters had no generators. The hospitals were without water. With the roads covered in mud and debris, help was not coming quickly enough.
"We would tell them we needed tarps for roofless homes and they'd say, 'Okay, let's do it,' " Miranda Torres said. "But then they didn't have anyone to drive the trucks to deliver the supplies. I'd go to the command center to spend four or five hours there listening and advocating for my city. It was frustrating."
Tactically, federal and Puerto Rican authorities had the right idea, he said. Logistically, the operation failed.
Miranda Torres and other local leaders went to work identifying and solving problems.
Residents could not get out of their barrios because of fallen debris, so within a week the city government and workers cleared every winding mountain road. Nearly 700 senior citizens in home care or nursing homes did not have care and food, so volunteers went into all the barrios to locate bedridden seniors who needed help. Hundreds of people did not have enough of their medication to get through the week, so the municipal government coordinated directly with local pharmacies to sort through inventory and facilitate deliveries of specific medications to residents.
In the San Salvador neighborhood, 19 people were living in elementary school classrooms, and the local lunch ladies volunteered to cook for them Tuesday, serving up rice and beans, pork and peaches, along with glasses of milk. Across the region, neighbors were pooling the food they did have — sweet potatoes from their gardens, bread and plantains found in the brush.
Neighbors have been hugging and comforting one another. City staffers already know that some children and residents will need psychological counseling.
"You see them there smiling and chatting, then all of a sudden they go silent," said Madeline Gonzalez, who oversees the meal preparation at the San Salvador shelter. "You know they are depressed."
'Flashlights, you don't
need them anymore'
Trump continued into the church, where he was greeted by several dozen members and others who cheered his arrival. A few people in the crowd shouted that they loved him or held signs that read "Proud Americans," "Let's Make Puerto Rico Great Again" and "God Bless You, Mr. President." At least one person wore a red "Make America Great Again" hat.
Trump shook hands, posed for selfies and examined some of the supplies stockpiled at the church — bags of rice, solar-powered flashlights, bottled water, rolls of paper towels and cans of chicken.
"Whoa! I've never seen that before," Trump said, holding up a can of chicken. "That looks kind of good. Let's start handing it out. Do you feel like this?"
But few in the camera-wielding crowd appeared to be in need of a can of chicken. Trump moved down the line to the flashlights, asking the crowd who wanted one. He tried out one of the larger models, shining it at the television cameras and the crowd as if it were a spotlight.
As he handed out some smaller flashlights, he declared: "Flashlights, you don't need them anymore. You don't need them anymore."
Trump passed out yellow bags of rice and then started tossing rolls of towels into the crowd as if he were shooting free throws. The crowd laughed and cheered him on. When he contemplated doing the same with the cans of chicken, the crowd gently told him no.
The church is also distributing water purification kits, and a member explained the process to the president.
"Wait," Trump said, "you put it in dirty water?"
"And then you can drink it after 10 to 12 hours," she explained.
"Would you do it? Would you drink it?" he asked.
"Sure," she said.
"Really?" Trump said, a disgusted look coming across his face.
"Really," she said.
"Is this your company or something?" Trump asked the woman, seeming suspicious of the aggressive pitch.
"No," she said, "I'm part of the church."
"This is an interesting thing," Trump said as he started to hand out the kits. "Try that."
In Caguas, the mayor and his staff met at city hall to discuss how best to distribute the next shipment of water from the federal government — whenever it arrived.
"Are they sending us the gallons or the small bottles?" Miranda Torres asked his secretary of human development, Aida Gonzalez. She thought it would be 16-ounce bottles.
In remote places such as Caguas, drinkable water is often scarce, although there is some water service and residents have been catching rainwater in cisterns. Across the island, only about half of residents have access to clean drinking water.
"Water is health here," he said. "If people don't have it for hygiene and the like, they are going to start getting sick."
Water often seems like the most pressing community need, but Miranda Torres has found there are so many others. As he toured the barrios of Borinquen and Tomas de Castro on Tuesday afternoon, a dog ran out into the road and its head was crushed by a passing vehicle. A little girl's shrieks pierced the air.
The mayor pulled over, jumping out of his Chevrolet Tahoe to take the child into his arms. He held her tight as she wailed into his shoulder. It was a different kind of tragedy that had befallen this family but within the sphere of duties for Miranda Torres that day.
Walking back to his vehicle, Miranda Torres made it about three steps before he was greeted by another resident looking to talk — and eager to see someone in an official capacity visit the neighborhood.
The needs, big and small, seemed endless.
"If Trump wanted to see the real Puerto Rico," said Caguas's vice mayor, Lydia Rivera Denizard, "he should've come here."