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Puerto Rico's Slow Recovery


It has been three months since Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: The winds are ferocious right now, gusting above 120 miles per hour, severing the tops of the palm trees and ripping off the...

MARTIN: The islands have struggled to recover, and many Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders are still without power. Yesterday, top federal officials visited Puerto Rico, promising to speed up recovery efforts there. We are joined now by Luis Trelles. He is an editor and producer for the program Radio Ambulante in San Juan. Thanks so much for being with us, Luis.


MARTIN: So the HUD secretary, Ben Carson, and the new Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, were among this group of federal officials who were in Puerto Rico. How did they characterize the recovery efforts there?

TRELLES: Well, Secretary Nielsen acknowledged yesterday during her trip that the recovery efforts were, in fact, not going as fast as they would have hoped for. And one message she took back to Washington with her is the fact that local officials and residents are asking for more flexibility in how the Homeland - the Department of Homeland Security approaches the recovery effort here in the island. Ben Carson told staff members from FEMA that he was actually impressed with the way that the island had progressed since the hurricane and that he was expecting signs of worse damage on the ground.

MARTIN: Are there still signs of the damage? I mean, what have you seen? Can you give us an idea of what the situation is actually like there now?

TRELLES: Yes, I can tell you that most Puerto Ricans are very frustrated with the - how the recovery is developing. I have talked to several people who still don't have any power or those that have gotten their electricity back have family members living with them because their power is out in their homes. And there are dozens of people that are still in shelters that do not have electricity, that are living with backup generators. And that's taking its toll on people's lives. I talked to several people, and you can listen to them here.

WILLIE RODRIGUEZ: I have friends that live in Cupey Alto in San Juan, and they're not even thinking about having electricity anytime soon.

JOEL VILLEGAS: Right now, I'm still living as a refugee in the basement of a church, and my whole family's there.

TRELLES: That was Willie Rodriguez (ph), who works in a landscaping company in San Juan, and Joel Villegas (ph), a student in Puerto Rico's Sacred Heart University.

MARTIN: Voices of people you've spoken with who are still trying to cope in the aftermath of the storm. Before I let you go, Luis, I understand the governor of Puerto Rico is now requesting an audit of the death toll from hurricane-related injuries. What more can you tell us about that? Is that something that had not been tallied before?

TRELLES: Well, as of today, the death toll still stands at 64. But from the first weeks after the hurricane, several local outlets, including the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism, were pointing to the fact that hurricane - that deaths related to power outages in hospitals and retirement homes were probably much higher than the official death count. That has been borne out now by recent findings from the Office of Vital Statistics here in Puerto Rico, which point to the fact that the deaths by unrelated causes to the hurricane but caused by the disastrous effects of Maria could probably be more than a thousand.

MARTIN: Luis Trelles with Radio Ambulante in San Juan. Thanks so much for talking with us.

TRELLES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Luis Trelles
Luis Trelles is a senior editor on NPR's Enterprise Storytelling Unit, where he helps shape international stories that hit close to home for the Rough Translation podcast.