SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s governor activated the National Guard on Tuesday to rush food, medicine and gasoline to the popular tourist islands of Vieques and Culebra following a major breakdown in transportation that critics say could have been avoided.
The announcement came after cargo ferries that supply the two islands located some 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Puerto Rico recently broke down, cutting an important lifeline to the roughly 11,000 people who live there. In addition, tens of thousands of tourists visit the islands every year, and people have been posting pictures on social media of empty shelves at supermarkets and long lines at gas stations.
“This has been a disaster,” Nilda Medina, a Vieques resident, said in a phone interview. “Right now there is no milk. We are sharing what little we have with islanders and with tourists.”
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said that the first shipments would arrive late Tuesday and that the National Guard would continue its mission until the situation improved and the ferries repaired. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard is allowing the government to temporarily use one of its ships to carry supplies and make one trip to Culebra and two to Vieques.
Just over five months ago, Rossello’s administration rented four additional ferries and changed the departure point from Puerto Rico to the two islands as part of a multimillion-dollar project aimed at improving a troubled transportation system. The government is seeking to establish a public-private partnership to resolve issues.
“It’s a situation … that is chronic and spans multiple decades,” Rossello said as he signed an executive order to activate the National Guard.
Mara Perez, who recently was appointed director of Puerto Rico’s Maritime Transportation Authority, said residents of Vieques and Culebra urgently needed supplies after two cargo ferries broke down last weekend. The two other ferries were already being repaired, she said. Meanwhile, Rossello said his administration expects to soon rent a fifth private ferry.
The breakdown means that some people who need to travel to the main island for medical visits and other business have been forced to wait in long lines for the passenger ferries because they cannot afford to fly or hire private boats, said Vilma Santana, a Vieques resident whose husband is on dialysis.
“The government has not responded,” she said. “Nothing has changed.”
People on both islands say their situation remains dire after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017. The only clinic in Vieques is shuttered and slated for demolition. A shelter is currently serving as a makeshift clinic, but most people are still forced to travel to Puerto Rico for medical attention.