In San Juan, we wait hours to buy groceries. We’re the lucky ones

Armando Valdés Prieto writes: My pregnant wife and I stood in line for two hours outside our neighborhood grocery store over the weekend. Once inside, we found that most essential products were scarce, and we were limited in the number we could buy of each item.

But we’re in Puerto Rico’s capital city, and we’re middle class, and that makes us pretty lucky. Millions of poor Puerto Ricans are worse off since Hurricane Maria hit, and if the government and aid organizations can’t figure out the best way to deploy lifesaving supplies to the rest of the island, it will only get bleaker.

In San Juan, folks have to choose between different lines: at the supermarket for food, at the gas station for a fill-up or at the bank to access cash — the only form of payment accepted at most stores, since ongoing telecommunications outages make it difficult to accept credit cards or other electronic payment methods. Even the commonwealth’s Nutritional Assistance Program, which feeds 1.3 million people out of Puerto Rico’s population of nearly 3.4 million, operates mostly electronically, which means it’s currently also not accepted at many retail outlets, so poorer residents can’t buy food without cash. Thankfully, many low-lying areas in San Juan do have potable water service. El Nuevo Día, the island’s largest and most influential newspaper, reported on Friday that 45 to 50 percent of the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s customers now have service. But that number has barely budged since the first wave of repairs began days after the disaster.

Still, outside the San Juan metro area, reports paint starker choices. In many rural towns there are no lines; stores haven’t been able to open, tanker trucks can’t reach distant gas stations to resupply and many bank branches are still closed. Water service has not been reestablished in many areas, and people I’ve spoken with tell me of hour-long slogs just to get drinking water for their families. Rural residents have no basic goods to buy, and no way to buy them even if supplies arrived. They need help immediately.

This past weekend, I spoke to an aid worker for an international NGO and a high-ranking official in the federal disaster response bureaucracy in Puerto Rico. To my surprise, they both agreed that the island’s current predicament is one of the worst, if not the worst, natural and human catastrophe they’d worked on. [Continue reading…]

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