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Puerto Rico governor: ‘We still need some more help’ from Washington

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló receives a hug from a resident moments after the National Guard arrived to distribute water and food at in Santurce , San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 24. (Carlos Giusti/Associated Press)

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is warning that his government needs broader assistance from the federal government, calling on the Pentagon especially to provide more aid for law enforcement and transportation.

Rosselló said he's also worried that Congress will shortchange his island once the initial wave of emergency relief is gone.

“We still need some more help. This is clearly a critical disaster in Puerto Rico,” he said on a shaky cellphone connection Sunday night from San Juan. “It can’t be minimized and we can’t start overlooking us now that the storm passed, because the danger lurks.”

Senior congressional aides in both parties said late Sunday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency isn't expected to ask lawmakers for a new round of federal disaster relief funding until mid-October, meaning that the agency thinks it has enough money at its disposal to cover major disaster recovery operations nationwide. Absent a formal request from the Trump administration, lawmakers cannot begin work on a federal relief bill for the latest round of damage caused by record-setting hurricanes, the aides said.

Whenever lawmakers get around to passing such legislation, Rosselló wants them to remember: “This is a major disaster, not unlike Katrina or Sandy. There is going to be a hefty toll for us to make sure that we can reestablish normalcy and build Puerto Rico back stronger.”

Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz recounts the many struggles Puerto Rico's capital city is facing as it tries to regain its footing after Hurricane Maria. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Rosselló said he has had “great collaboration and communication” with FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services, which have been on the island since the morning after the storm assessing damage and setting up shelters.

But after several intense days of preparation, response, rescue and cleanup, Rosselló said, local law enforcement agencies are strained and hampered in their ability to reach far-flung areas that may still need relief. Even as he asked for more assistance from the Defense Department, he stopped short of requesting that the Trump administration declare martial law.

“What we're suggesting at the onset is that we make sure we get the necessary airplanes, the necessary capabilities so we can get to people. And some brigades, either of law enforcement officers in Florida or other places to supplement the efforts of our law enforcement officers,” he said. “Nothing as extreme as martial law, but certainly capabilities so we can reach people that are in need.”

In a news release Sunday, FEMA outlined the ongoing federal response, noting that the Defense Department has deployed helicopters to conduct rescue flights, damage assessments and to airlift medical patients to safety flown from the USS Kearsarge and the USS Oak Hill and manned by personnel from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is also operating nine vessels off Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Several urban search and rescue teams from FEMA and other agencies are either in Puerto Rico or were en route Sunday, FEMA said.

Other local leaders have expressed concern that lawlessness could become a major factor in the coming days. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said she knows that looting is already happening across her city.

“There is horror in the streets,” she said in a raw, emotional interview with The Washington Post on Saturday. “People are actually becoming prisoners in their own homes.”

“I know we’re not going to get to everybody in time. . . . Two days ago, I said I was concerned about that. Now I know we won’t get to everybody in time,” Cruz said.

The governor is a 38-year-old academic who once represented Puerto Rico in the International Mathematical Olympiads. He is head of the New Progressive Party, which advocates for statehood and is loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party. He spent Sunday assessing the damage across the island of more than 3.4 million residents, and he traveled with National Guard troops to deliver aid to some parts of San Juan.

As of Sunday night, Rosselló said he had yet to hear from the mayors of six tiny municipalities, mostly in mountainous and southern parts of the island. Although the death toll officially stands at 10, he fears it will climb in the coming days.

“Flying over the island and seeing the complete devastation of humble housing — wooden housing — seeing the propensity of floods in different areas, you can’t help but wonder if some people didn’t go to safe shelter, stay there and whether they were impacted,” he said.

While Rosselló is pleased with the initial short-term response to the hurricane, he is clearly wary of what may transpire next in Washington — and concerned that Americans broadly aren't paying enough attention to his island's plight.

“I’m afraid that perhaps other events have garnered more attention than this one, when the force of nature, the impact that this has had, the devastation is equal to those events,” he said — referring to recent storms in Florida, Texas and elsewhere.

“We are U.S. citizens that just a few weeks ago went to the aid of other U.S. citizens even as we’re going through our fiscal downturn and as we were hit by another storm,” he said. “Now, we’ve been essentially devastated. Complete destruction of the power infrastructure, severe destruction of the housing infrastructure, food and water are needed. My petition is that we were there once for our brothers and sisters, our other U.S. citizens, now it’s time that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are taken care of adequately, properly.”

If the situation isn't addressed in the coming weeks, there could be “massive migration to other states, which will bring a whole host of other problems to Puerto Rico and the states. It is within everybody’s interest that we handle this situation for what it is — an unprecedented situation, where two hurricanes back-to-back hit Puerto Rico on an island that was under fiscal turmoil. Those considerations need to be taken into consideration when Congress puts together its aid bill.”

Late last week after the storm hit, some Florida lawmakers said they had already begun planning for the arrival of “tens of thousands” of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States, a move that is legal — given that island residents are U.S. citizens — but that could put strain on states also recovering from recent natural disasters.