SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — As Puerto Rico deals with a lack of power, food and drinking water in the wake of Hurricane Maria, residents are also in dire need of another commodity: Cold hard cash.
And that means what little other resources are available often can't be purchased by those in need.
“The cash is running out, for a lot of us,” said San Juan resident Monica Morales by phone on Thursday.
Morales said people were waiting on hours-long lines at any ATMs that happened to be open in the hopes of taking out money.
“There’s a lot of tension, it’s hard to find water and food right now and we still don’t have any supermarkets open near us,” she said.
Morales said security was beefed up at the banks that were running, but in the days after the storm she heard stories of people robbing those who were able to take out cash.
She said her own cash was running very low, and though she had financial support from her family on the mainland there was no way to access it without internet and power.
“They sent me money through PayPal, but I don’t have access to internet to be able to make that transaction,” said Morales, 48. “I’m actually in the middle of this predicament because my cash is running low and I have the money via PayPal but I need the means to do that transfer.”
The New York branch of the Federal Reserve, whose jurisdiction encompasses Puerto Rico, said Wednesday that they are preparing to "meet any sustained elevated currency demand in the future."
"Demand for cash is extraordinarily high right now, and will evolve as depository institutions regain power, armored car services are able to reach branches, and ATMs are once again active," the New York Fed said in a statement on Puerto Rico. "We are coordinating with local and national authorities to monitor the situation on the ground very closely, and are actively preparing to meet any sustained elevated currency demand in the future."
Hurricane Maria, which came nipping on the heels or Hurricane Irma, knocked out power to the entire island and officials have said it could take months for the territory to recover.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan was expected to arrive in Puerto Rico Thursday evening to help with hurricane relief efforts, according to a military official.
Buchanan will be the Joint Force Land Component Commander, according to the official, meaning he will be Department of Defense's lead in working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on identifying needs and providing military assistance and assets.
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke is expected to travel to Puerto Rico Friday with other senior administration officials and meet with local officials to reserve recovery efforts, the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
Duke has been in contact with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló throughout response and recovery efforts, the statement said.
"The top priority of the federal government is continuing to provide life safety and life sustaining resources to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands," the statement said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday the government has sent emergency cash shipments to the island.
“We’ve been very involved in figuring out how we can get major amounts of cash to Puerto Rico,” he said at a Washington ideas forum. “I can tell you we’ve made two giant cash shipments and in times like this we want to make sure that ... people have cash and the economy continues to function."
But locals said the devastation was crushing the daily economy, with many businesses lacking power and the ability to take credit cards as payment. Others are unable to return to work to make money as their employers have yet to reopen.
Surgical technician Dilma Gonzalez told the Associated Press said she had only $40 in cash left and her job hasn’t called people back to work yet in the capital. “Until they let us know otherwise, I’m not supposed to go back,” she said with a shrug.
FEMA has reached out to all of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities “and delivered some commodities to all of them,” John Rabin, FEMA Region II acting regional administrator, said during a teleconference Thursday afternoon.
FEMA said on its website Thursday that it has “provided millions of meals and millions of liters of water to Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. Additional meals and water continue to arrive to the islands daily.”
Meanwhile, the White House announced Thursday that it had temporarily waived the Jones Act — a nearly century-old shipping law many have said is hampering relief efforts in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
“At @ricardorossello request, @POTUS has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tweeted Thursday morning.
The acting Homeland Security secretary, Elaine Duke, confirmed the move, saying that the temporary waiver will last for 10 days and covers all products being shipped to Puerto Rico.
Officials both in Puerto Rico and on the U.S. mainland had been calling on the administration to waive the act.
But as the island’s residents continued to grow desperate for basic necessities, thousands of containers for local communities are sitting in Puerto Rico’s ports.
“Overall in the ports of Puerto Rico there are over 9,500 containers” full of necessary supplies, Jose Ayala, vice president of Puerto Rico services at Crowley Maritime Corporation, told MSNBC on Thursday.
More than 3,000 are in the port of San Juan alone, he said.
Ayala said the island’s myriad of issues, ranging from communications problems, damaged roads, people unable to make it to their places of work, low diesel were creating a distribution crisis.
Alejandro De La Campa, director of FEMA’s Caribbean Area Division, stressed during the teleconference Thursday that these goods referred to commodities already in ports that local entities and business were not able to access because of complications from the hurricane.
“All FEMA commodities are moving as we receive them, they are being deployed to the distribution centers as we receive them. They are being deployed,” he said, adding that “not a single trailer” from FEMA of other federal responders were being held at Puerto Rico’s ports or airports.
Mariana Atencio reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Daniella Silva reported from New York City.