Rafael Reyes embraces his wife Xarelis Negron and his son Xariel as they stand next to thier belongings, in front of the remains of their home in Morovis, Puerto Rico.
( Ramon Espinosa
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The President didn’t limit his tweets this week to threatening the free press, he also took a moment to threaten ongoing federal aid to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The ppresident says, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
BOB GARFIELD: According to TheNew York Times, it’s typical for FEMA and other agencies to help on the ground for years after a disaster of this scale. But in Week 4 of the devastation in Puerto Rico, the president is already talking about withdrawing aid. Meanwhile, on the island, the emergency seems to be escalating.
DAVID BEGNAUD: Residents struggle to find clean water, amid fears that floodwater is spreading disease. Sixty-one-year-old Jorge Sanyet Morales is believed to have died from leptospirosis.
[SOUND OF WOMAN CRYING IN BACKGROUND]
It’s a bacterial infection spread by contaminated water. It should have been easily treatable with antibiotics.
BOB GARFIELD: That was David Begnaud of CBS who was in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria hit on September 20th and then reported for two weeks straight, doing dispatches for the network and posting videos on Twitter.
DAVID BEGNAUD: Well, let’s start with this. A majority of the island, roughly 90 percent, doesn’t have power. The US government, with the help of FEMA, was working to restore as much of the power grid as they could as quickly as possible. A thunderstorm rolled through about 72 hours ago and wiped out the progress that was made. That’s how delicate and dilapidated this infrastructure is.
BOB GARFIELD: We spoke to him on Tuesday after he’d returned to the island following just a few days on the mainland.
DAVID BEGNAUD: There’s a feeling that things are more desperate today than when we left five days ago, okay? You're talking about a governor who has told congressional leaders that they could be on the brink of an economic collapse. Damage estimates are -- one estimate is upwards of $90 billion. The governor is asking for 4.6 right away. There are 350,000 people living in the capital of San Juan. The mayor says half of them need food and water, not for a day, not for two, but for the foreseeable future.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re not new to the disaster beat. You’ve said this is the first you’ve covered where the emergency is so endless. Is it because the storm was so bad, because the island was so ill prepared and fragile, to begin with, because the response from the federal government and the military has been lacking, which?
DAVID BEGNAUD: When I was in Houston for Hurricane Harvey, civilian Samaritans from Louisiana and Austin and North Texas and Arkansas and Mississippi and North Louisiana drove in immediately, and what I saw was the civilian Samaritans who were doing as good a job as the federal government, if not better. Now, it’s been 20 days. People have arrived, saying, hey, I heard what was needed so I booked a ticket and I came from California or Odessa, Texas or Baltimore or New Jersey or New York. But I just spoke with a woman whose husband is a veteran. He’s on the western part of the island with 11 other veterans, and they put out something of an SOS. They said, we have run into red tape. We need supplies to hand out but we can't find the help. And when you talk to FEMA, they tell you, we’re doing our best, and they seem to have the best intentions. But there are 16,000 of them. There were more than 30,000 in Houston for Harvey. Why can't they get more? That’s not a question I’m asking. It’s a question that people on the ground here are asking.
BOB GARFIELD: The administration has painted Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, as kind of a politically-motivated nag. FEMA’s Director Brock Long said just Sunday on the morning public affairs shows --
FEMA DIRECTOR BROCK LONG: We filtered out the mayor a long time ago and we don’t have time for the political noise. The bottom line is, is that we are making progress…
DAVID BEGNAUD: I’ll tell you, I went to her last night and I said, what’s your response, and she said, you can filter me out all you want but I’m not going to start saying what they want me to say.
MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: I’m not gonna play nice because I’m a woman and I’m supposed to play nice, because we’re here in the fight for our life. You see what the subtext of that is? If you don’t criticize, then you’ll get help. So does that mean that the only ones that are getting help are the ones that are shutting up?
DAVID BEGNAUD: She has, seemingly, been undistracted. She seems very focused. And most of the help and resources, according to the major that she’s feels satisfied with, are coming from non-governmental organizations and the private sector.
Look, a lot has been made about the politics, right, the President calling out the mayor of San Juan, the governor and the mayor of San Juan having a back and forth? Let me say this, according to our reporting, nobody's talking about politics.
BOB GARFIELD: You have become a de facto fixer. When you talk to the governor about supplies at the airport, the governor makes things happen.
DAVID BEGNAUD: We just left a few minutes ago and there are people who have not had a sip of water in 36 hours.
GOVERNOR RICARDO ROSSELLO: I understand it.
DAVID BEGNAUD: Yeah.
GOVERNOR ROSSELLO: And that’s why immediately I’m taking action, and I will, as soon as we finish the interview, make sure that they’re on their way.
BOB GARFIELD: The mayor of San Juan herself has tweeted for you [LAUGHS] to intervene with FEMA.
DAVID BEGNAUD: And it’s almost awkward. I mean, I woke up Sunday morning and the mayor had put out this desperate tweet, and she tagged me in it. And then all of a sudden on Twitter, you have hundreds, if not thousands, of people that are reaching out, saying, did you see it, what can you do? It was another important reason why we had be here because, in this day and age, of that term “fake news,” as the president calls it, the best of journalism is making things happen here.
The lack of communication here on the island is unprecedented, from what I’ve ever experienced on a national disaster. I get thousands of messages a day from people who are desperate for information. People are craving direct access, and we are doing everything we can to get it and, for whatever reason, it seems to be working.
BOB GARFIELD: David, much of your reporting, probably most of it, has not been on CBS's air but on Twitter where you were publishing, you know, full video reports, including your big scoop about aid shipments being just stranded at the airport.
DAVID BEGNAUD: We’re at the port here in San Juan and we wanted to see where’s the food, the supplies, everything that’s needed. We got here and here’s what we were told. There are more than 3,000 shipping containers here at the port which are just sitting here. It’s got everything they need but nobody’s showing up. The governor of Puerto Rico says they’re having trouble reaching the truck drivers.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, first of all, let me ask you about those. Is there evidence that they have finally begun to get distributed to the 70-plus municipalities on the island where they’re needed?
DAVID BEGNAUD: Yes. There are more truck drivers arriving to deliver the aid. And, let’s remember, those shipping containers that we found at the port that were so maddening to see sitting there, those were meant for grocery stores, right, for local businesses who needed to have them delivered and weren’t getting them? FEMA, to FEMA’s credit, went in and started buying it up and saying, listen, we can’t wait, we’ll buy those supplies and we’ll ship ‘em out.
But as much as we talk about the progress being made, Bob, all I keep hearing from people is it's not happening fast enough. This is coming from mayors, police officers, people on the ground. I talked to a priest last night who’s in an area 30 minutes outside San Juan who says depression is starting to set in among the desperate people.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the jobs of a reporter in your position is to find out what is true, also to find out what is not true but which has found its way to the rumor mill. You’ve spent some time debunking false rumors. Can you tell me why it matters to do that as much as it matters to say what is going on?
DAVID BEGNAUD: Rumor on this island has stoked fear and paralyzed progress. I’ll give you an example. We kept getting all these harrowing reports of bodies floating and caskets unearthed in Lares. And so, we sent a producer, a camera crew, and they came back, come to find out there were no bodies floating, there were no caskets unearthed. And there was a police officer actually at this graveyard where apparently this horrific scene was, turning people away saying, hey listen, there's nothing to see here.
So, not satisfied, I went to the man who’s the head of public safety for the island and he said, listen, we, we have to clear this up. He was, he was almost angry that we were asking. And so, I said, stand right here, and I got my phone and we shot a 10-minute video. And the next day he came to me and he said, you don’t know how much that video helped to clear up some of the confusion and quell all these rumors that were going around. Since then, there have been endless rumors about the spread of Third World diseases and, and all this kind of stuff.
And so, in this emergency situation where people are trying to get the basic necessities and I'm trying to find out why the government, in combination with the federal government, seems to be unable to adequately meet those needs, in the middle of that, you're also trying to run down and fact check all these other different angles.
BOB GARFIELD: You’ve talked about Samaritans. You may be Samaritan number one. Because of the stories you've broken, you have come to be regarded, you know, as something of a saint. In New York, [LAUGHS] there, there are even candles with decals of you, you know, in full saint regalia. This is an unusual position for a reporter. How do you deal with that?
DAVID BEGNAUD: It’s a bit uncomfortable. This is not about me. But I will say this. I have, in my career, not experienced one story that’s felt so effective in terms of the job that journalism can do, right? Bob, I, I, I just came here because it was another hurricane and that was my assignment, but what has happened is the best of what journalism can do, and that is highlight injustices and hold people accountable. I'm not doing anything that another journalist couldn’t do. There's nothing special about me or what I'm doing. But I'm doing it relentlessly, consistently, doggedly, and we don’t plan to stop.
BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you very much.
DAVID BEGNAUD: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: David Begnaud is a news correspondent for CBS.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, psst, did you hear? The Harvey Weinstein scandal first emerged as whispers in the gossip blogs.