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Earthquakes Revive Puerto Ricans' Mistrust of The Government


Weeks after a powerful earthquake and dozens of aftershocks in Puerto Rico, President Trump has signed a major disaster declaration, which means federal money can now be used to help damaged towns along the island's southern coast.

As officials on the island have been waiting for this decision, some citizens have taken matters into their own hands. They've been moving into the affected areas to help the thousands who've been sleeping outside because of fears of another big quake. It's a show of solidarity, but as NPR's Adrian Florido reports, it's also a demonstration of mistrust in the federal government.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: For days, the highway along Puerto Rico's southern coast has been choked by traffic - cars packed with clothes, tents, water, food for the thousands of people sleeping in makeshift camps on roadsides, on hillsides and in vacant lots.

It took Haydee Colon (ph) three hours to get to the town of Guayanilla, where she set up on the side of the road to dish out rice, beans and pork.

HAYDEE COLON: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I woke up at 4:30 in the morning to cook this," she said. Colon said that after the quake, she knew she wanted to help, to donate. But she didn't want to give her donations to Puerto Rico's government.

COLON: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I'm not giving the government anything," she said, "because then who knows what'll happen to it?" Colon said she feels like that because of what she saw after Hurricane Maria two years ago.

COLON: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "There were trailers full of supplies that got lost, that just sat there rotting," she said. It's something many people are saying here, and it's why so many people have decided to deliver their donations personally. Officials have pleaded with people not to do that, saying the traffic is making it hard for responders to move through the area. Still, people are doing it.

JUAN PABLO DIAZ: There's a lot of mistrust. And people are just trying to take the matters into their own hands.

FLORIDO: This is Juan Pablo Diaz. He's a comedian in the capital, San Juan. Days after the earthquake, he and his brother created a website - suministrospr.com. It lets people who've moved into makeshift camps across the south list the help they need, so people trying to donate know where to go and what to take.

DIAZ: And people responded. It was like wildfire, you know?

FLORIDO: So many people logged on, the site crashed on the second day. Diaz's brother, Javier Velez, designed the site and said people are adding new camp sites every day.

JAVIER VELEZ: There's a community that literally the name they put on the site was, like, we are in the Burger King parking lot at night and we need this and this and this and that - like these, like, makeshift camps that they're making. And people will become even more, like, fearful every single night because it's still trembling every single day.

FLORIDO: Velez said he's pleased the site has been a success, but it's also an indication that people aren't getting help elsewhere.

VELEZ: It's a matter that we had to take into our own hands because it's immediate. It has to happen right now. And if no one else is doing it, we have to do it because what happened after the hurricane was so horrendous that we can't afford to let this happen once again.

FLORIDO: Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.