Federal troops are leaving Puerto Rico, but the island is still desperate for help

Parts of Puerto Rico have attempted to restore everyday life but many are still left without homes, power and water

By Charlie May

Published November 10, 2017 10:20AM (EST)

A car drives under tilted power line poles in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico. (Getty/Ricardo Arduengo)
A car drives under tilted power line poles in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Humacao, Puerto Rico. (Getty/Ricardo Arduengo)

More than six weeks after Hurricane Maria leveled the island of Puerto Rico, the situation on the ground is still quite severe and many remain without homes, power and have limited access to clean water, as the federal troops prepare to leave the U.S. territory over the next few weeks.

The reality for many is that distribution checkpoints in which ready-to-eat meals, and cases of water handed out from the back of a truck have become the "new normal" for citizens of Morovis, just 40 miles from the island's capital, San Juan, Army Reserve Captain Angel Morales told NPR.

Hundreds of people regularly line up for supplies outside of Jaime Collazo High School, many still left frustrated by the long road ahead and the cumbersome relief efforts. Morovis still doesn't have running water, which Mayor Carmen Maldonado has said is a "critical issue."

The lack of access to water is not just limited to Morovis, many across the island fear of contracting bacterial diseases as a result of drinking unclean water. There have been 18 confirmed cases of leptospirosis, which is "a bacterial disease spread through contact with contaminated water that can be deadly if not quickly treated," the Miami Herald reported.

So far at least four have died from the disease.

Army officials have said that the emergency is over, as throughout the island most roads have been cleared and supermarkets have reopened, NPR reported. There are currently an estimated 11,000 federal troops on the island, down over 15,000 in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. In the coming weeks the number of troops could drop by half as the National Guard begins to take command of the situation.

"It's not a withdrawal, it's a transition," said Lieutenant General Jeff Buchanan, who is leading military relief efforts on the island. "We're transitioning more from the federal side of the military more to the state side of the military."

The National Guard has worked hand in hand with the military.

"In the military, it's a synchronized effort," said Brigadier General Jose Reyes, who's with Puerto Rico's National Guard, according to NPR.

Buchanan indicated he didn't want the public to feel as if they are being left in the dark. "But we are concerned about how we talk about it, because we don't want people to get the wrong impression," he said. "They are not being abandoned whatsoever."

Mayor Maldonado, has said the economy is still barely able to operate, and the city's largest business, a paper mill, shut down as a result of the hurricane. The mill is relocating to a separate municipality, and bringing 80 jobs along with it.

"It's a very sad situation," Maldonado said. "because we are as important as any citizen in another municipality."

As for the rest of the island, a main power line that delivers electricity to the northern half of Puerto Rico failed on Thursday. Seven cities that only recently reestablished power are left without it again, the New York Times reported.

The island's aging power grid was totally destroyed as a result of the storm, and is only generating power at 18 percent of its capacity after being as high as 43.2 percent on Thursday morning, the Times reported.

The government was forced to terminate its contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings after the service was exposed as a shady two-person company with strong ties to President Donald Trump's administration. The $300 million contract was riddled with unusual clauses and also prevented any audits from taking place.

Charlie May

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Disaster Relief Federal Relief President Donald Trump Puerto Rico Trump Administration Whitefish