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    Electricity slowly returns to Puerto Rico as frantic rush to distribute aid continues

    By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
    By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
    September 29, 2017, 6:13:27 PM EDT

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    Puerto Rico is battling potentially catastrophic humanitarian, agricultural and economic crises as the island reels from its worst hurricane impact in nearly a century.

    “The full extent of the human and economic impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is unimaginable and is not even fully realized yet,” said Dr. Joel N. Myers, Founder, President and Chairman of AccuWeather.

    “As humanitarian aid, shipments and personnel arrive, we are only just beginning to get a glimpse into the tragedy in the Caribbean. Three Category 4 or higher storms in five weeks is unprecedented and pose great challenges and logistical problems especially for islands, where airports and ports are not fully operational," Myers said. "While we learned important lessons from Katrina in 2005 and our leadership in Washington is doing a much better job overall in responding to this weather disaster, the Caribbean is essentially a war zone, and we must pull together as a nation to help these U.S. territories out of this crisis.”

    Several Puerto Rican officials tweeted about the state of despair facing their constituents, who will likely deal with Maria's devastating impacts for months.

    Gov. Ricardo A. Rossello has called for additional assistance from the United States government as Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents cope with loss of power, drinkable water and fuel.

    Bayamón Mayor Ramon Luis Rivera called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to accelerate the process so that aid can flow to the government and municipalities in need.

    With millions still without power, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulia Cruz told ABC News that people are “gasping for air” in the brutal heat.

    "What's out there is total devastation, total annihilation," Cruz said.

    “I personally have taken people out and put them in ambulances because their generator has run out,” she said.

    As many still struggle to contact loved ones, reporters are assisting those in Puerto Rico and abroad who are attempting to reach friends and relatives via social media, local radio and apps including Zello.

    Univision News has also created a bilingual tool to help people learn the latest information on the situation unfolding throughout Puerto Rico.

    Infographic - Maria's impact on Puerto Rico

    Power has been restored to Centro Médico Hospital in San Juan and San Pablo Hospital in Bayamón, according to FEMA.

    On Friday, Sept. 29, Puerto Rican newspaper, The New Day, reported that 5 percent of the island has regained electricity.

    However, Puerto Rico's severely damaged electrical grid may be beyond repair and could require rebuilding, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

    President Donald Trump addressed the situation on Tuesday and announced a planned visit to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands next week.

    “Both have been absolutely devastated by Hurricane Maria, and we’re doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people,” Trump said.

    Gov. Rossello thanked Trump on Twitter for “his leadership, quick response and commitment to our people.”

    The president also authorized an increase in federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures in Puerto Rico.

    Maria aftermath - Puerto Rico

    Jose Garcia Vicente walks through rubble of his destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

    Following the urging of officials to lift the Jones Act, President Trump has waived shipping rules, which will significantly help expedite recovery efforts and the arrival of aid in Puerto Rico.

    The federal law, which limited shipping by foreign vessels and helped protect U.S. shipbuilders’ financial interests, made it twice as costly to ship from mainland U.S. to Puerto Rico than from any other foreign shipping port.

    As search and rescue operations continue, FEMA said over 500 people have been saved or assisted.

    More than 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, 70,000 tarps and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting have been distributed to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. An additional 7 million meals and 4 million liters of water were en route as of Tuesday.

    The U.S. Navy announced Friday that the USNS Comfort, a floating Navy hospital with one of the largest trauma centers in the U.S., will sail to Puerto Rico to assist with aid and recovery efforts.

    The ship will take up to one week to reach the devastated island, according to U.S. officials.

    Economic impacts

    The dire situation is a severe blow to Puerto Rico's already fragile economy.

    “They were in a 10-year recession, $70 billion in government debt and now you have these things destroy the tourism industry,” said Bill Kirk, chief executive officer of Weather Trends International.

    Puerto Rico’s tourism industry, which made up 6 percent of its GDP in 2016, will suffer significantly as many Caribbean cruise ports remain closed. The Port of San Juan is the Caribbean's largest and busiest cruise port.

    A number of cruise lines have canceled sailings to and from Puerto Rico through at least the end of September.

    infographic - Maria's impact on the U.S. Virgin Islands

    Puerto Rico’s billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry is also threatened. Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing were the island’s largest exports in 2016, comprising 72.4 percent of total exports, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

    “There’s no power, so there’s no way for these huge facilities to make medical devices,” said Kirk. “People don’t realize that it was a huge part of Puerto Rico’s economy.”

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to take action against critical shortages of “life-saving and life-sustaining” medications manufactured in Puerto Rico.

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    Agricultural impacts

    Agriculture makes up 0.8 percent of Puerto Rico’s GDP, and with only 6 percent of the land being suitable for crop growth, the island’s agricultural sector is vulnerable to impacts from land-falling hurricanes.

    Maria decimated about 80 percent, or $780 million, of Puerto Rico’s crop value, delivering one of the costliest blows the island’s agricultural industry has ever experienced, according to Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture Secretary Carlos Flores Ortega.

    “That’s going to have both a direct food supply hit and a financial hit that will be noticed in the short, medium and long term,” said Dr. Eric Stern, professor at the University of Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cyber-Security.

    One farmer told the New York Times that Maria knocked down each of his 14,000 plantain trees and destroyed his other crops.

    "There will be no food in Puerto Rico,” José Rivera said. “There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico and there won’t be any for a year or longer.”

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