UN visits Puerto Rico to assess help for hurricane victims

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A United Nations expert on extreme poverty and human rights met Monday with hurricane victims in Puerto Rico as complaints grow about the U.S. government’s response to a Category 4 storm.

U.N. envoy Philip Alston toured one of the hardest hit areas in the capital of San Juan, marking the first time such an envoy has visited the U.S. territory in recent history.

Alston told The Associated Press that there is a disproportionate number of Puerto Ricans living in poverty and that he’s trying to assess, among other things, the effectiveness of measures taken by the federal government after the storm hit on Sept. 20, killing dozens of people and destroying tens of thousands of homes. Ten of the island’s 78 municipalities are still without power, and thousands of businesses remain closed.

“I’ve visited areas that are still completely without power. I’ve seen areas that have lots of damage that hasn’t been removed, and that must be very distressing after three months,” he said.

He walked past homes with no roofs and a woman still washing sheets by hand three months after Hurricane Maria hit, raising hopes that his visit could help speed up the long recovery process.

Roughly 45 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people were already living below the poverty line before the hurricane hit.

Alston said he was impressed how local nonprofit organizations have helped Puerto Ricans recover from the storm, adding that one of the challenges is how the government can harness their power.

“There is more resiliency and potential self-sufficiency here than has been acknowledged,” he said.

Alston declined further comment, noting that he will present a full report of his observations and a list of priorities on Friday following a two-week trip that also included visits to several U.S. states.

“There are a number of issues I want to take up,” he said.

His visit comes more than a month after a group of U.N. experts criticized the U.S. government for what they said was a lack of urgency and priority in helping Puerto Rico, compared with U.S. states affected by hurricanes.

The U.S. approved nearly $5 billion in aid for Puerto Rico in late October, but local officials say they have not yet received any of those funds. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Monday that it has collected 1 million cubic yards of debris in Puerto Rico and FEMA said it has separately approved more than $1 billion in assistance for people on the island.

However, Puerto Rico community leaders said that people living around the contaminated Martin Pena Channel, which was visited by Alston, did not receive any help from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency until a month after the hurricane hit.

“We’re not living. We’re surviving on what little aid we receive,” said community leader and resident Mario Nunez. “We have human rights.”

By the time FEMA crews reached the house of one of his neighbors, 59-year-old Margarita Carino, she had already gone to the dollar store to buy a tarp and scavenged a nearby contaminated waterway for pieces of zinc and wood that neighbors used to help rebuild her roof. Carino then used tar and paper towels to patch holes in some areas.

“This has been a disaster...I’ve fallen into a depression,” she said as she used both hands to wipe away tears.