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Puerto Rico still struggling just to survive

Jeff Buchanan, the commander of Joint Task Force

Jeff Buchanan, the commander of Joint Task Force Puerto Rico, and soldiers from the Puerto Rico National Guard unload a Blackhawk helicopter carrying critical supplies in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 11, 2017. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / HO

The people of Puerto Rico can’t yet talk of rebuilding, or even recovery.

They are focused on survival.

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the scope of the damage is still shocking. Just 10 percent of the island has power, although that number fluctuates, and only a third of cellphone towers are operating, according to Puerto Rico’s government. Nearly 40 percent of the island is still without running water, and some residents are using water from contaminated wells, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The medical crisis is distressing: Only some hospitals are operating fully, and many lack medicine, doctors and generator fuel. Getting basic supplies to residents is still a challenge, and on Wednesday the hurricane’s death toll rose to 45.

Congratulations are premature

New York’s state and city officials and others are filling some gaps created by White House, FEMA and military officials, who have yet to display the necessary urgency and crisis management to alleviate the island’s suffering. It’s not just about sending supplies, it’s making sure they get to Puerto Ricans who need them. It’s not just about providing emergency medical facilities, it’s making sure the island’s sick residents get care. And it’s about not patting themselves on the back for a job well done when the job is far from over.

Don’t be fooled by federal officials’ attempts to downplay the devastation and sugarcoat their botched response. Their inability to handle this crisis, as well as the expectation that it will take months for power to be fully restored, for all schools to open and for jobs to return is leading thousands of residents to leave. That will exacerbate a population drain Puerto Rico has been experiencing and will make the island’s recovery much harder.

The exodus creates an opportunity and a challenge for New York, home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans.

Ways New York can help

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he expects a “substantial number” of Puerto Ricans — likely in the thousands — to head here. Our fellow citizens will need assistance. That means easing regulations and lifting paperwork requirements, which state and city representatives said they’re starting to do. Families won’t need documentation to register students at city schools, and the NYC Department of Education has given principals guidelines on how to handle new students. The city is providing mental health services though a free help line and new residents and their families can call 311 for additional assistance.

But a statewide clearinghouse of information would be helpful. State officials said they’re working to address that need. A state website with specific information and phone numbers to call offering bilingual help would be ideal.

Some Puerto Ricans will come here to wait out the crisis, others will stay on the island and rebuild. They’ll need help from the federal government, whose officials should stop congratulating one another and get serious about preparing for the long term. Congress, too, must do its part by approving an immediate disaster relief package and the $4.9 billion loan President Donald Trump requested this week to address larger issues of liquidity.

But to our Puerto Rican friends heading this way, welcome.

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