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Emergency relief efforts are ending in Puerto Rico. Army officials say they are beginning to draw down federal troops. Roads are cleared across the island, many supermarkets and stores have reopened, and work is being done to rebuild the island's infrastructure. But that doesn't mean things are getting back to normal. There are still areas with no running water and only emergency power. NPR's Greg Allen reports on the growing frustration over how the recovery is going.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In the city of Morovis, people are still struggling to get basic necessities.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
ALLEN: Cases of water and MREs are being handed out by Army Reserve troops at a high school in Morovis. Dozens of people line up and one by one carry cases away.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
ALLEN: Hurricane Maria hammered this mountain community 40 miles from San Juan. More than six weeks later, the only power available here is supplied by emergency generators. In a meeting with federal officials this week the city's mayor, Carmen Maldonado, asked for additional help.
CARMEN MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).
ALLEN: "Water. That's the critical issue," she said. There are at least 400 elderly and bedridden residents, Maldonado says, who aren't able to get out and lug home the cases of water they need.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL JEFF BUCHANAN: I'm trying to sort through, you know, what percentage of the problems are structural to the pump system versus the electrical power.
ALLEN: Lieutenant General Jeff Buchanan is in charge of the military's relief efforts on the island. In a meeting in the mayor's office in Morovis, Maldonado tells him there were problems with the city's aging infrastructure even before the storm. Buchanan says his authority only goes so far.
BUCHANAN: I'm convinced we can solve the electrical problem or we can at least have a temporary solution to the electrical problem. I'm less confident on the cleaning of the pumps and the pipes and all of those kinds of things.
ALLEN: Puerto Rico's water authority says it's working to fix the problems with the pumps and filtration system in Morovis. Mayor Maldonado says no one has been able to give her an estimate of when that will happen.
MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).
ALLEN: "It's a very sad situation," she says, "because we're as important as any citizen in another municipality. Often these mountain towns are neglected because we're less populated, and priority goes to heavily populated areas." Without power and water, Maldonado says, her city's economy is nearly at a standstill. The largest business in the city, a paper mill, was forced to shut down after it was damaged in the storm. Maldonado says it's now relocating to another municipality, taking 80 jobs with it. General Buchanan says Puerto Rico's National Guard will continue providing relief as long as necessary. But with the emergency over, Buchanan says federal troops under his command are going home. He doesn't like the word withdrawal.
BUCHANAN: It's not a withdrawal. It's a transition. We're transitioning more from the federal side of the military to the state side of the military. It's just - it's - for us it's very natural. But we are concerned with how we talk about it because we don't want people to get the wrong impression. They're not being abandoned whatsoever.
ALLEN: There are about 11,000 troops on the island now, down from more than 15,000 shortly after the hurricane. Over the next few weeks, that number will drop to close to half that as federal troops hand over responsibilities to National Guardsmen. But while the military says the emergency is over, for the vast majority of people in Puerto Rico things are far from normal.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Spanish).
ALLEN: Chaylin Palma's four kids, age 6 to 9, are already thinking about Christmas. One says he wants a house made out of rocks like the Flintstones. Another just wants a new bed. Their home was destroyed in Hurricane Maria. Since then they've been sleeping on cots at a high school in Morovis that's being used as a shelter. Chaylin has her own Christmas wish, and it's directed at the city's mayor.
CHAYLIN PALMA: Find us a home. Find us housing. Get us out of here. You're the mayor. This is your job.
ALLEN: FEMA says it's sending a team to the city to help a dozen families at the shelter find temporary housing. Mayor Maldonado wants to reopen the schools, but that will only be possible after housing has been found for the families sheltered there and after the city's water service has been restored. Greg Allen, NPR News, Morovis, Puerto Rico.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD SONG, "TRUTH LIES LOW")
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