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No Electricity Limits Flights And Relief Supplies Going To Puerto Rico


The situation in Puerto Rico remains dire this morning. Many residents are stranded without enough food, water, electricity, fuel. This is, of course, a week after Hurricane Maria hit the island. There is some good news and maybe some less isolation for people on the island because the San Juan airport is finally open. But there are only a limited number of flights each day. NPR's David Schaper reports.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, my God (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: That's too much.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: On this lot on Chicago's northwest side, a couple of women are stacking hundreds of cans of food into boxes while dozens of other volunteers carry and sort additional donated necessities from toothpaste and T-shirts to diapers and wipes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Baby formula, where does it go? Baby formula.

SCHAPER: As pallets full of bottled water are loaded onto a truck, Vilma Colom, one of the relief effort's organizers, complains that these vital necessities are not heading straight to the island.

VILMA COLOM: They're putting everything in a warehouse at the airport. They're not taking it to the towns.

SCHAPER: The reason - they can't get an airline to ship all of the donated goods.

COLOM: Everybody's upset because we did all this. We all have families there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: We're American citizens too. We have...

COLOM: And we're American citizens, and all of us has family in Puerto Rico.

SCHAPER: Airlines say they are carrying relief supplies into Puerto Rico, but only a handful of commercial airline flights have been able to get into the San Juan airport in recent days.

ROSS FEINSTEIN: It's a real challenging environment right now.

SCHAPER: Ross Feinstein is a spokesman for American Airlines.

FEINSTEIN: A lot of our team members are using flashlights to look at manifests. One of our individuals who works for American is going to a local hospital to print the manifests off the night before. So these are some of the challenges. And we don't have any computer systems that are up and working because there's no power. The connectivity is really limited.

SCHAPER: Even the TSA is without power, so security agents can only screen passengers and luggage by hand. But the biggest problem seems to be the airport itself, and the equipment used to guide and track planes. Michael Huerta is the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

MICHAEL HUERTA: There's significant damage to a lot of the facilities both within the airport but also the air navigation facilities that we used to provide air traffic services.

SCHAPER: Huerta says San Juan's air traffic control tower fared pretty well, but the communication and radar systems were severely damaged by Maria.

HUERTA: Our most significant radar and communications facility is located at Pico del Este, which is literally at the top of a mountain.

SCHAPER: The road to that facility was left impassable by the storm, so the only way for technicians to reach it is by Black Hawk helicopter. But Huerta says bad weather and poor visibility kept them from getting there until recently.

HUERTA: They had to be dropped a couple of miles from the facility and then had to hack their way in - and that's with chainsaws and other equipment - so that they could actually have access to the site.

SCHAPER: Huerta says Marines are working to clear a path to the facility so that tools and replacement parts could be brought in to repair it. In the meantime, a patchwork of other radar and communication systems is now allowing controllers to see planes and talk with pilots so that more flights will be getting into and out of San Juan.

HUERTA: Yesterday was double the rate of the day before. Today is more than double the rate of yesterday.

SCHAPER: Huerta says this morning, the airport should be handling about 36 arrivals an hour, counting military, humanitarian and commercial flights. But it will still take some time to get generators, drinking water, fuel and other vital necessities in and thousands of stranded and desperate residents awaiting commercial flights out. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELI AND FUR SONG "FEEL THE FIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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