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Puerto Rico Braces For Hurricane Maria

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hurricane Maria could hit Puerto Rico as soon as tomorrow, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma killed three people on the island. Puerto Rico's governor has declared a state of emergency and ordered thousands of people to evacuate. Earlier today, I spoke with Danica Coto. She's an AP reporter in San Juan. And I asked her what she was seeing on the streets.

DANICA COTO: Well, there's a light breeze and intermittent rain. I believe most people heeded early the call to stock up on water, food, other essentials and prepare their home. So nearly all windows have been boarded up. Streets and beaches that are normally bustling with people were pretty quiet, compared with the traffic on Monday, which was pretty chaotic. So some stragglers still on the streets. And they're trying to pick up, you know, the last-minute garbage and trying to clear the streets of debris from branches that fell from Irma two weeks ago.

SHAPIRO: Well, this is one of the fears that I've heard - is debris that has not been cleaned up since Irma two weeks ago could become dangerous projectiles when Maria passes over.

COTO: Correct. Actually, right outside my street, there's a lot of debris - big branches that are still sitting on the side of the street. And it hasn't been picked up. And at this point, it won't. You know, the governor has ordered everybody inside at this hour.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that most people have obeyed the evacuation orders, or are people going to try to ride this out?

COTO: I think it's half and half. There's about nearly 400 people in shelters that the government prepared. And there's 500 shelters capable of taking it up to 133,000 people. So the officials said they would like to see more people in shelters. But right now it seems most people are confident they can ride it out in their home.

SHAPIRO: Hurricane Irma did not deliver a direct hit to Puerto Rico. And still, more than half the island lost power. Many people still don't have power. Given how fragile the infrastructure is, how long-lasting might the devastation from a storm like Maria turn out to be?

COTO: Well, it's a huge concern. I mean there's still nearly 70,000 people without power. So they've been without power for two weeks. And now Maria's bearing down. And the governor has not given an exact timeline. But he said, quote, unquote, "it will be a long time" before power's restored. And he said that the infrastructure is just too old and poorly maintained to be able to withstand a hurricane of this size.

SHAPIRO: And a double whammy sounds like it would be very, very difficult to rebound from.

COTO: Correct. If there's a blackout period of between three to four days, which is pretty significant to most people here. And, basically, expect to rebuild most of the infrastructure - the power agency here.

SHAPIRO: People in Washington have said that they have Puerto Rico on their minds. Do you see people in the streets from FEMA, relief workers, other signs that the American mainland is there to help Puerto Rico?

COTO: Well, there's several FEMA workers staying in a hotel nearby my house. And the FEMA director here has said that there's a team of 35 people that specialize in responding to disasters. It's a little early to say, you know, how much aid might be coming in. But for now, officials have said that they will be present shortly after the hurricane to help out.

SHAPIRO: We've been hearing for months, if not years, about Puerto Rico's financial crisis. Rebuilding costs a lot of money. Is that money that Puerto Rico has?

COTO: No. Puerto Rico at this point, if you ask government officials, does not have any money. It has about $73 billion in public debt. But some economists say this storm could prove to be a good thing for Puerto Rico in terms of receiving aid not only from the federal government but from the private sector, as well. There's been a lot of talk about privatizing government agencies here, including the power company. So many say that this might be a new beginning for the island.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like we should be looking for short-term impacts - whether that's storm surge, flooding, wind damage - and also long-term impacts about the infrastructure, the island's finances and other things like that.

COTO: Correct. The mayor has said that this storm will be catastrophic for the island not only in terms of landslides, flooding, homes, you know, that are built out of wood and have galvanized roofs but also in terms of the reconstruction period. There's a lot of federal aid that will be pouring into Puerto Rico, officials say. But as of now, Puerto Rico, you know, has been in a more-than-a-decade-long recession and is struggling to provide even the most basic services.

SHAPIRO: That's Danica Coto of the Associated Press speaking with us from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thank you for joining us.

COTO: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.