Puerto Rican town sees first FEMA aid delivery 2 weeks after hurricane

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GUAYANILLA, Puerto Rico – Cely Rivera can’t take the lines anymore.

Lines for cash, lines for food, lines for water and lines for gas.

What’s worse: She never knows when supplies and aid will arrive in her hometown of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. It’s a hillside community dotted with coffee and plantain farms on the island’s southwest coast and like many other cities and towns across the island, it was heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria.

“The lines are endless,” Rivera, a 37-year-old mother of two, told CNN as 90-degree heat and a blazing sun bore down on her and dozens of others waiting for food. “There are towns where aid still hasn’t arrived.”

Puerto Rico’s National Guard arrived in Guayanilla on Monday with food and water provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

It was the first time since Hurricane Maria tore across the island two weeks ago that FEMA supplies had come directly to Guayanilla. Local officials previously had been going to the capital, San Juan, to pick up FEMA aid.

This time, National Guard members made the two-hour drive around the island to deliver the aid: more than 6,000 bottles of water and more than 3,500 meals.

In Guayanilla, where almost no one has electricity at home yet and few have running water, residents say the delay feels very real.

The response “is fast in the San Juan area but the south is forgotten,” says Lisa Marie Estrada, 38, who was with her daughter and granddaughter waiting for food and water.

Like Rivera and many others who spoke to CNN, Estrada stumbled upon the FEMA supplies by chance. She was walking by, saw people gathering and asked what was going on.

Even local officials in Guayanilla said neither FEMA nor the Puerto Rico Army National Guard gave them any notice they were coming. Cell service is nearly nonexistent on this part of the island, two weeks after the storm.

“That’s one of the biggest problems we have: the lack of communication,” says Carlos Jirau, a contracted organizer working for the municipality’s government.

Even little things weren’t made clear on Monday to residents desperate for aid. Some waited several minutes in the food line when they wanted to be in the water line, and vice versa.

At a bigger level, the steps between start and finish show why this response by the federal government has been more dogged than others, according to a FEMA official in San Juan. The necessities to complete those steps — cell phone service — make each one that much more difficult to accomplish.

In the mainland United States, FEMA and National Guard troops typically hand out aid — food and water — directly to residents at a local distribution center.

Not so in Puerto Rico. First, aid arrives either at the airport or sea port. Then truckers deliver it to FEMA’s supply base in San Juan. After that, FEMA and the National Guard bring aid to one of several distribution centers on the island. From there, local mayors, police or authorized leaders can pick up the aid — sometimes driving two hours each way — and then bring it back to their towns to distribute.

That extra, critical step with local government requires communication, which is extremely difficult, especially in the island’s less populated areas. Only 35% of Puerto Rico now has phone service, according to government figures.

Rivera, who got in line for water, then had to get in line for food, expressed a common frustration.

“There isn’t any communication,” Rivera said. The general response “isn’t as effective as you would hope.”

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