People sit on both sides of a destroyed bridge that crossed over the San Lorenzo de Morovis river, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Morovis, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017.
( Associated Press
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
LESTER HOLT: There is devastation everywhere and like a curtain is slowly being lifted on this disaster, revealing more and more of the suffering and the dire straits on this island.
BOB GARFIELD: NBC's Lester Holt arrived in Puerto Rico Monday to anchor coverage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria's landfall five days earlier. Better late than not at all, because no other anchors have gone and because the previous day the five major Sunday shows had spent less than one minute of airtime, combined, on that story, according to Media Matters. Much of the actual heavy curtain lifting this week has been done by CBS's David Begnaud who’s been tweeting out videos as he’s reporting, asking why aid isn't getting to those who need it.
DAVID BEGNAUD: I’m just saying, we just left a few minutes ago and there are people who have not had a sip of water in 36 hours.
GOVERNOR RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: I understand it.
DAVID BEGNAUD: Yes.
GOVERNOR ROSSELLÓ: 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…
DAVID BEGNAUD: And I said to the governor earlier, I said, listen, show us. I, I, I said, it’s not that I don’t believe you but help me tell the people that are asking me where the heck it is. There are more than 3,000 shipping containers here at the port, which are just sitting here. It’s got everything they need. The governor of Puerto Rico says they’re having trouble reaching the truck drivers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then, as millions on the mainland strained to hear from loved ones and Puerto Ricans struggled to get drinking water, President Trump tweeted about -- the island’s debts. Tempted by a political showdown, coverage followed Trump’s reluctance to ease the Jones Act, a maritime law that restricts shipping between US ports, including Puerto Rico. He relented on Thursday, suspending it for ten days, while insisting that relief efforts are going well.
On the island, reporters lent satellite phones out for quick calls to loved ones, but Univision took the connections a step further, sending crews out in Puerto Rico to record tearful video messages and then beaming them back to relatives.
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But even with a powerful human drama unfolding, a FiveThirtyEight analysis shows that Puerto Rico’s story hasn't gotten anywhere near the same print or broadcast coverage as Hurricane Harvey’s hit to Texas or Irma’s damage in Florida a few weeks ago. Also, Google searches for Hurricane Maria were lower than for Irma or Harvey, too, which means it’s not just media and government who seem to view Puerto Ricans as second class citizens. Many Americans, 54%, according to a new poll, don’t even realize that they’re, in fact, citizen citizens. And, not surprisingly, people are more likely to want to send aid if they know that Puerto Ricans are actually Americans. Among those who do know, 81% wanted to send aid but among those who don't, only 44% did.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ COTTO: We have fought for the US, we have been in different wars, working for America forever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sandra Rodriguez Cotto is a Puerto Rican columnist. When the storm hit, she was listening to Radio Wapa, the only radio station on the island to broadcast continuously as Maria made landfall.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ COTTO: It got to a point that one of the reporters got emotional on the air, and I thought, well, he must be exhausted. So the next day I came here as a volunteer and they put me on the air and I said to all the reporters, the anchor, radio personalities, psychologists and people that want to just basically help, please come, I’m here. And so far, we have had about 35 reporters from different radio stations. News anchors have come and newspaper reporters, and more people are coming every day.
BOB GARFIELD: Newspapers are publishing only online but, with most of the island out of power, their work mainly reaches the diaspora. TV stations are broadcasting but the anchors admit they have no idea who's watching. So, with regular lines of communication down, Wapa, broadcasting over the airwaves, has been helping to coordinate rescue and relief efforts for more than a week.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ COTTO: Just to give you an example, last night we found out that there was a, an elderly home in San Juan and it’s a five-story building and they have people who are on wheelchairs and people who cannot walk, really, really old people, they have no food, no water, no electricity, and the administrator basically left them there. We found out through our neighbor and a volunteer, a doctor, heard it on the radio, went to the home and then came to the station to verify the information. We just alerted the government.
BOB GARFIELD: With electric power cut off, hospitals are running out of fuel for generators. ATMs aren't working, so there's no cash but also very little to buy. Lines for gas are long and you can buy only $15 worth at a time. Only 40% of Puerto Ricans have clean drinking water. But Cotto says she's trying her best not to panic and not to panic her listeners.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ COTTO: They’re still in shock after the hurricane and they were expecting the government to recuperate faster. Here in Wapa, we’re trying to tell people to be patient; we have to work together on this one. I’m optimistic that at least this could be a new beginning for Puerto Rico, believe it or not, [LAUGHS] but this gives us the opportunity to build something new and to rethink what we have been doing to the environment in Puerto Rico, to the way politics have been taking over, basically, our lives. So, in that sense, I’m optimistic because when you see people from different ideologies, from different areas joining forces and basically saying the things that I just told you, it gives me hope.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, it turns out what we sing at the Super Bowl is not exactly your father’s national anthem or his father’s or the Founding Fathers’ either.