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Hurricane Maria: A midnight journey on military aircraft to Puerto Rico

By Washington bureau chief Zoe Daniel, Saturday September 30, 2017 - 12:08 EST
ABC image
Zoe Daniel flew on a C-130 out of Savannah, Georgia, to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico. - ABC

In truth, daylight in Puerto Rico was welcome after a five-hour flight over the inky blackness of the Atlantic.

The air crew were wearing night vision headsets due to the lack of visible landmarks; the only illumination came from occasional flashes of lightning.

Eight days after , getting to Puerto Rico required hitching a ride on a C-130 out of Savannah, Georgia, at midnight.



The National Guard — deploying noble men and women to help keep the peace and clean-up after multiple hurricanes across the Caribbean — squeezed myself, cameraman John Mees and our considerable kit onto the plane.

The pilot offered us a bench seat at the rear of the cockpit and we were deposited on Apron 1 in San Juan at dawn.





Much of the Caribbean is without power, but Puerto Rico — with a population comparable to Melbourne — has been hard hit and could be without electricity for six months.

That, plus a lack of communications due to downed mobile phone towers, means the airport at San Juan is operating like a pop-up strip in a warzone.





Pilots are using their experience and their eyes to land planes rather than radar and air traffic control, hence the limited commercial flights.

Puerto Rico is suffering badly after being whacked by a category 4 storm on September 20 and a number of factors are compounding the problem.



It was already a struggling US territory (not a state) with crumbling infrastructure and huge debt before the hurricane caused widespread destruction.

Being an offshore island — as Donald Trump has helpfully pointed out — means help can't just be driven in across state lines. Getting relief in is quite a mission.

Its isolation from the mainland US also means the problem is out of sight, out of mind for many Americans unless they have family or close friends here.

And this storm closely follows hurricanes Harvey and Irma which have already sucked up massive emergency funding and resources.

Sadly, today, we saw the results of that combination first hand.

People queued for crazy distances and periods of time to get fuel. They then queued again to get more due to rationing.

They then queued for water. Neighbours combined food resources due to an inability to get cash from ATMs and the fact that no-one is taking credit cards so supplies can't be bought.

Big stores that accommodated food stamps like Walmart have closed because they can't run their generators without diesel. Big hotels have stationed security guards on their doors and are not letting non-residents in to eat at their facilities.



First relief arrives after eight days



The US relief agency FEMA says it now has 10,000 staff on the ground — who are staying at the above hotels — that hospitals are coming back on line, that food and water is being delivered. We are still looking for that.

Instead, we met people who saw their first relief in eight days in the form of a municipal truck and came away with a few bottles of water and some second-hand clothes. They said it was better than nothing.



Those same people are not wealthy, and now they have houses inches deep in mud on the floor and up the walls, sodden and smelly belongings, no power, no running water, little food and no visible government clean-up underway.

I've seen big floods and storm disasters before, more vast and deadly than this.

There are always complaints relief is too slow, the government doesn't care, but this has the waft of a slowly unfolding crisis that will linger for months and years and, as always, it's the poor who will be forgotten when the interest wanes.

There's another thing that strikes me: the world needs to get better at restoring communications after storms.

Each time I travel to a weather disaster, the biggest frustration is that comms have been knocked out.

People can't contact family members, they can't access news; can't call for help. The government can't inform its citizens, assessments are slowed down, and planes can't land.

Surely in this world that we live in, where the internet and cell phones are ubiquitous, this is something that we can do something about?


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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