KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
In Puerto Rico, the number of people who have died since Hurricane Maria has gone up to 45 and will likely go even higher. Power is still out across much of the island, and hundreds of thousands of people don't have running water now three weeks after the storm.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There are now more than 13,000 U.S. troops in Puerto Rico. That's on top of FEMA and other U.S. personnel helping the island recover from the hurricane. They are working to deliver the emergency aid that arrives daily by air and sea.
MCEVERS: But to reach the people in need, they have to work with the island's 78 mayors. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, that means navigating bureaucracies that often have been plagued by mismanagement.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For people in San Juan, life is tough but mostly manageable. But in the most remote areas of the island, food supplies are low, and residents have neither power nor running water. The three-star Army general in charge here, Jeffrey Buchanan, and his Puerto Rican deputy, General Jose Reyes, visited the town of Lares by helicopter. Reyes had some news for Mayor Roberto Pagan.
BRIGADIER GENERAL JOSE REYES: (Speaking Spanish).
GJELTEN: "We're bringing in extra troops here," Reyes said, "15 or 20 soldiers to help you distribute the aid." This is happening in each Puerto Rican municipality - a militarization of the aid operation. It will be the troops' responsibility to oversee local aid distribution to make sure it gets to the neediest areas. But that's not all. At a time like this, desperate people do desperate things. Stuff is getting stolen.
REYES: So we are also providing security to supermarkets, gas stations to make sure that people are calm and, you know, we don't have any civil disturbance.
GJELTEN: Reyes and other U.S. officials here say most Puerto Rican mayors are doing what they can to serve their people. But one reason for deploying U.S. soldiers in each municipality is that some local officials are not all that trustworthy.
REYES: Well, we have some people that are not cooperating. But we will make sure we get the commodities to the people that are actually in need.
GJELTEN: Unaccountable mayors are an old issue in Puerto Rico. They're said to be accustomed to doing their business without interference from above. Arnaldo Cruz, research director at the Foundation for Puerto Rico, says the mayors' clout stems from the key role they play in turning out the vote in their region for their political party.
ARNALDO CRUZ: If you're a governor or you're a senator or if you're a state congressman, then you can't piss off the mayor because you need the mayor about four years 'cause they're the ones who are going to get you the votes.
GJELTEN: But in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, U.S. federal authorities are running relief operations.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Have you been able to register with FEMA yet?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
GJELTEN: In the region around Lares yesterday, Generals Buchanan and Reyes personally accompanied the aid deliveries, going house to house with boxes of food and water.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN)
GJELTEN: As their trucks rolled down the narrow streets, loudly announcing their presence, people came out to cheer the generals and the FEMA officials who accompanied them. In the town center, the Lares mayor and his son made a personal pitch to General Buchanan, saying all aid should come directly to them so that they can distribute it themselves in their own trucks.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).
GJELTEN: "If a helicopter comes and leaves the aid in some village park somewhere," they told General Buchanan's interpreter, "no one will know where it is." General Buchanan was unpersuaded.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL JEFFREY BUCHANAN: What he needs to know is until I get told to stop from FEMA, I'm going to keep pushing supplies by air. And I understand why he wants it here. But you know, this way, we can ensure that everybody is getting help. So we'll keep doing it, and when we get directed to stop, we will.
GJELTEN: The U.S. officials here say the Lares authorities seem well-organized. Pushing the aid straight to remote areas is an island-wide policy at a time of concern over whether local authorities are moving the aid properly. The chief federal prosecutor here, Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, tells NPR some municipal employees have been hoarding the aid they've received. In response, she's sending auditors to each municipality to check on aid distribution. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, San Juan.
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