NEW YORK (AP) — As the days pass since Hurricane Maria ripped across Puerto Rico, television reports increasingly echo those after Katrina a dozen years ago in sounding the alarm for a desperate population frustrated by the pace of relief efforts.
The question is: how many people are listening this time?
The words were blunt by the usually easygoing Bill Weir on CNN: “This is a humanitarian crisis the likes of which we have not seen for a long time.” His report, though, came 20 minutes into a Jake Tapper newscast that was led by political developments in the United States.
The story has struggled to get the attention of predecessor hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which struck the U.S. mainland. The emotional plea of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz on Friday felt like a turning point, although it was overshadowed in the news by the resignation of President Donald Trump’s health secretary, Tom Price.
Trump himself brought it back into the news Saturday, with Twitter attacks on how the “Fake News Networks are working overtime in Puerto Rico doing their best to take the spirit away from our soldiers” and first responders.
He may have done more to focus people on the story than television had up until the past few days. So far NBC’s Lester Holt has been the only broadcast network anchor to report on the storm from Puerto Rico, a telling measure of the story’s importance to news executives. Puerto Rican developments led NBC’s “Nightly News” each night this past week; on ABC’s “World News Tonight,” it was the lead story once.
Wind and rain stinging Chris Cuomo’s face was a defining image of Hurricane Irma coverage from Florida. Yet until Anderson Cooper arrived on Friday, Maria hadn’t attracted cable news’ marquee stars.
In a report from central Puerto Rico this week, CNN’s Leyla Santiago repeatedly emphasized that residents were U.S. citizens. A native of the island who now lives on the mainland, she’s aware how many people don’t know that. After the storm, many Puerto Ricans raised the citizenship issue when expressing surprise that relief efforts seemed sluggish following such a ferocious storm.
“I’ve heard it many times - we’re Americans, too,” Santiago said.
It’s fair to wonder how much of an influence this has had on interest in the story in both homes and newsrooms.
One measurement starkly brings this to light. When Harvey struck Texas, The Weather Channel’s audience peaked at 1.1 million viewers on Aug. 25, the Nielsen company said. It hit a record-setting 3.3 million on Sept. 10 with Irma’s landfall. The network’s biggest audience for Maria coverage was 494,000.
The Weather Channel stationed 11 on-air meteorologists in Florida for Irma coverage. Only Paul Goodloe went to Puerto Rico. He’s gone now. Any Maria stories on the network now come from corporate colleagues at NBC News.
Journalists have faced the same logistical issues as relief workers. The extent of the damage made it hard to get to Puerto Rico and hard to communicate while there. Getting to Vieques was treacherous for CNN’s Weir since his pilot had to fly on sight alone because of broken radar. A day’s reporting target is often decided on how much gas can be located. “It’s a daily challenge to get around,” said NBC News reporter Gabe Gutierrez.
When NBC News executive Janelle Rodriguez sends someone new to Puerto Rico, she makes sure they bring extra suitcases packed with water and non-perishable food. Many NBC personnel there sleep on cots at the local Telemundo affiliate.
The reporters are doing their best to reflect what Puerto Ricans are going through.
“I’m not a hero here,” said CBS News’ David Begnaud, who has been in Puerto Rico since before Maria hit on Sept. 20. “It’s the first responders. The problem is it’s just not happening fast enough, and people need to know that.”
When he reached the ground on Vieques, Weir found a line of people waiting to use a satellite phone to call relatives. One woman was in tears because a bank machine was inoperable; Weir reached into his wallet and handed her some bills. Noting how the U.S. military once used the island for target practice, he said in a report, “What better way to make it up to them, by storming the beaches with aid instead of bombs?”
A woman tightly hugged Santiago in one inland town when she arrived in a helicopter hired by CNN. It was the first time residents had seen anyone from outside the community since the hurricane hit. When federal officials reported late in the week that they had reached 35 municipalities, Santiago noted that Puerto Rico had 78 in total.
“It’s important to sound the alarm, to put the story out there, so that every time someone says, ‘aid is getting through,’ we can show that it may be here, but it is not getting to the most vulnerable,” she said.
With each day, reporters are questioning the effectiveness of relief efforts that U.S. officials say are going well. Several news organizations showed truckloads of emergency supplies sitting in a port because drivers couldn’t be located to distribute them.
“I’m tired of going to press conferences where officials give credit to other officials for being involved,” Begnaud said. NBC’s Gadi Schwartz told Rachel Maddow of hundreds of officials milling around an air conditioned convention center, seemingly unsure what to do.
Begnaud and Santiago both said they receive hundreds of messages a day from people on the mainland, asking them to check on relatives. After his hotel manager told him of a children’s hospital that was running out of diesel for its generators, he posted the news on social media and government officials responded with help.
He sees scenes of desperation every day, like the food handout in a western Puerto Rican community on Friday where a young boy walked away with four bottles of water and a can of Pringles potato chips.
“I tell people that I can’t fix it for you, but I can let the world know how you’re doing,” he said.