FEMA on Puerto Rico: 'It's not nearly as fast as any of us want'

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PUERTO RICO (CNN) (9/28/2017) - Puerto Ricans are struggling with day-to-day survival despite government and military efforts to help get the U.S. commonwealth back on its feet more than a week after Hurricane Maria's landfall.

Nearly half of gas stations on the island are still closed. Thousands of shipping containers with vital aid are sitting idle at the Port of San Juan. And many banks remain shuttered or low on money, while businesses accept only cash.

"A response to an incident like this is complex, it's difficult and it's not nearly as fast as any of us want," John Rabin, acting regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters Thursday at press conference in San Juan. "Hurricane Maria was catastrophic to Puerto Rico."

Rabin said that FEMA has given $17 million in aid to the island.

Puerto Rico faces a significant distribution challenge, with about 9,500 containers carrying food, water, medicine and other supplies stuck at San Juan's port, according to Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossella.

An official with the shipping company Crowley Maritme said later Thursday that at least 10,000 containers were sitting at the port.

Crowley said Wednesday it alone had 3,000 of those idle containers and had only been able to dispatch 4 percent of its load.

A myriad of problems makes it difficult to transport desperately needed aid throughout the island. Among them: Only a fifth of truck drivers have reported back to work at the port, a representative for the governor said Wednesday. It's impossible to contact many drivers since cell phone service and electricity are still down, and it also remains difficult to get gas for vehicles.

Debris continues to block roads on the island, whose infrastructure needed major repairs even before Maria hit.

"They are problems without precedent," Rossella said Thursday at the press conference. "After two hurricanes, this infrastructure has honestly collapsed."

But Rossella cited some progress since Maria struck last week, not too long after Hurricane Irma had brushed the island.

He said that 689 of the island's 1,100 gas stations are operating Thursday. A government-mandated evening curfew to prevent looting on the island is being lifted Thursday for truck drivers carrying essentials, he said, and certain gas stations will be designated just for trucks at night.

Also Thursday, President Donald Trump granted Puerto Rico a 10-day waiver from the Jones Act, a federal law that limits shipping to US ports by foreign vessels. Rossella had asked the White House to loosen the regulations as a way to speed up aid to the island.

Many Puerto Ricans are running low on money, and banks can't get enough armored trucks with gas, or truck drivers, to deliver the cash safely. Banks are also struggling to get software and safety systems back online, according to Zoime Alvarez, vice president of the Association of Banks of Puerto Rico.

Rossella said that 86 bank branches were working as of Thursday.

Banco Popular, one of Puerto Rico's biggest banks, said Wednesday that 57 of its 169 bank branches were open.

"It will take us awhile. It's been a big blow," Ignacio Alvarez, the bank's president and CEO, told CNN.

Many restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations will only accept cash because credit card systems are still down. The result is long lines almost everywhere in San Juan, with gas stations and supermarkets rationing food and gas.

Hospitals and other medical facilities have been struggling to provide care in Maria's wake. The lack of working generators and diesel to fuel those generators have put patients at risk.

But 44 of 69 hospitals on the island are now operational, according to FEMA. The Department of Health and Human Services has also established six "super shelters" on the island to provide health care.