- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2017

As the death toll from Hurricane Maria has climbed to 48 in Puerto Rico, residents still struggle with limited access to food, water, shelter and communications, with electricity restored to about 14 percent of the island three weeks after the deadly storm.

The death toll is expected to increase as relief workers reach more remote areas of the island and discover those who have died.

Dr. Lissette Guttierez, an obstetrician from Long Island, New York, traveled to Puerto Rico to bring relief aid shortly after the hurricane hit. She’s traveled back and forth twice and is preparing for a third trip, waiting on approval to transport cargo pallets filled with medications and other lifesaving and sustaining materials.

“Besides medicine, it’s a lot of basic needs,” Dr. Guttierez told The Washington Times. “We need tarps, maybe FEMA’s working on it, but they’re not getting to every place.”

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that relief workers faced unique challenges in responding to the storm since the air and sea ports had to be rebuilt and communication was nonexistent.

Since the storm hit, however, FEMA, in coordination with 22 other federal agencies and dozens of volunteer organizations, has been on the island providing relief.

Dr. Guttierez, a Puerto Rican native, had responded to emergency medical situations in Haiti and Cambodia before — so she thought nothing of getting on a plane and traveling to Puerto Rico once the coast was clear. She arrived there the Saturday after the storm hit with the island devastated and the entire power grid wiped out.

“I was on a relief flight with Jet Blue,” she said. “There was no power or electricity or communication at the airport when I landed. There was no satellite to the plane to even land, so we were up in the air for quite a while.”

From the airport she rented a car and started taking some of the supplies — about 55 boxes, each weighing 100 pounds — to isolated areas she was familiar with from her time living in Puerto Rico. She brought medicine, water, food, even Depends diapers.

“I went last week, and people thought in these remote areas that I was FEMA because I was just knocking on houses and checking on how they were doing there,” Dr. Guttierez said. “‘Are you FEMA?’ ‘No I’m just me.’ … They need tarps, they need water, they need food.

“I went to this town called Utuado [where] nobody has been to, and the roads are really bad. Three sisters died in a mudslide when the hurricane happened in that area, so the roads there are really bad.”

She’s in New York at the moment and is waiting for the go-ahead for a third trip with even more supplies that she’s sourced from friends in the medical community around the Northeast.

On top of physical needs, many Puerto Ricans are dealing with the stress and trauma following the disaster. Dr. Guttierez said she has heard about a number of suicide attempts on the island because people have lost their homes.

“There’s a lot of suicidal attempts,” she said. “I’m seeing my own friends, who are fine over there, getting depressed, like no hope anymore. This wasn’t a Third World country. These are people who had things and all of a sudden ‘poof,’ and how do you start all over?”

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