LOWER MANHATTAN — More than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump has temporarily lifted a shipping restriction to the U.S. commonwealth. A coordinated military response has also gotten underway with a three-star general overseeing the relief effort.
Despite those efforts, protests in New York on Thursday by hundreds of people with ties to the island underscore how their friends and family back home say that the response is not meeting the enormous need.
"We need to open all the doors to Puerto Rico and let all the help get in," said Carmen Gonzalez, a Lower East Side resident with family members in western Puerto Rico.
She was among dozens of people gathered in City Hall Park Thursday afternoon after having walked in protest over five miles from Columbus Circle.
Rick Santiago, a truck driver from Odessa, Texas, organized the rally in New York through a social media posting.
He waited in the Fort Lauderdale Airport for four days to try and get to Puerto Rico, and no flights were able to go to the island, he told the assembled crowd of demonstrators holding Puerto Rican flags, banners and protest signs.
"They need to let us go in."
Dr. Mayra Rodriguez, a physician from the Bronx, also helped to organize the rally, after having also waited at a Florida airport with other medical professionals trying to gain access to the island where their loved ones and friends live, and where access to food and water -- let alone medical care -- is dwindling.
"I've got you the manpower," she said to the crowd, "and they understand the island." As hard as she'd tried to get herself and other trained medical workers to gain entry to Puerto Rico, "Still nothing," Dr. Rodriguez said.
Her frustration was echoed by other New Yorkers trying to ensure aid gets to where it's most badly needed.
Hector Gonzalez, a Vietnam Veteran who runs the community group Just 3 Arts in Brooklyn, said that a VFW shipping container that made it to San Juan this week with badly needed supplies was met with a significant problem once it arrived.
"Once they opened the container," Gonzalez said about customs officials, they deemed that its contents "were not essential at this time."
Specifically, he said that new U.S. Customs and Border Protection rules issued this week limit what items can be shipped and the rules also require items to be identified to customs agents in very specific ways, all of which delays badly needed items getting to desperate people.
Dennis Flores, who runs the grass roots relief organization El Grito de Sunset Park, said that while he was very disappointed that the federal rules have kept some shipments from getting moved out from port and into cities, towns and villages around the island where they're needed, "This is lucky for us," he said.
The directive came in time for his organization, which has set up a shipping container full of relief supplies in Brooklyn, waiting to be loaded onto a ship, to ensure that it's packed and labeled according to the new code. That way, Flores said, "we can get it out and where it needs to be in as timely a manner as possible."
Also on Thursday, President Trump suspended the Jones Act for a period of ten days. The Act, passed in 1920, restricts cargo shipping in to Puerto Rico to ships that are manufactured, flagged and manned by the United States only.
Another protest, on Thursday evening in front of the Federal Building here, criticized the president's order. "Ten days is not enough! Ten days is not enough!" a couple hundred demonstrators shouted.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito joined the protest briefly, having returned recently from a short official visit to the island. She said that conditions are worse than we've seen on television and social media.
Some protesters who've been able to reach loved ones agreed. "My sister says that the funeral homes are backlogged and bodies are rotting" due to lack of refrigeration, said Maria Lopez. She said that she'd been able to speak briefly with her sister in Isabela, in northwestern Puerto Rico, when her sister was in a particular location where one of the few operable cell towers was working.
"The horses, the cows, their [carcasses] are everywhere" decaying, she said. She and other protesters said that the key is to get aid of all kinds out to locations away from the capital, San Juan, as soon as possible.