Mayor issues 'S.O.S.' as Puerto Ricans scramble to help most vulnerable

The mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital city San Juan issued a plea for urgent help as she expressed frustration with the speed at which rescuers were being set to work on the hurricane-ravaged U.S. territory.

“This is a big S.O.S for anybody out there,” Carmen Yulin Cruz told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night, “a plea for this help, which is right here, to get moving.”

Cruz said many rescuers on the ground had been left without marching orders and said she was aware of instances where medics had waited for two days before being briefed.

“The red tape needs to be ripped off as if it were a band-aid,” she said, “there are boots on the ground…but those boots need to start walking.”

Cruz's comments come as the Trump administration pledged new aid and a presidential visit amid criticism of its response to the crisis.

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans rushed to get basic necessities to the island’s most vulnerable populations, in what Cruz called a "terrifying humanitarian crisis."

In San Juan, the capital, a group of about 50 volunteers has been mobilizing in residences for the elderly, finding people in buildings that lacked food, running water, access to their medicines and were dealing with no electricity in stifling heat.

RELATED: Puerto Rico's crumbling Dam

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Puerto Rico's crumbling Dam
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Puerto Rico's crumbling Dam
An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man looks at damages on his flooded house, close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Local residents look at the flooded houses close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Men stand at the roof of a house submerged by flood waters close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Local residents look at water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A restaurant submerged by flood waters is seen close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
U.S. Coast Guard helicopters fly over the dam at the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A house submerged by flood waters is seen close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Local residents use a boat to pass next to a flooded house close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
People look at water flowing over the road as a helicopter flies over them at the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
The roof of a house submerged by flood waters is seen close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
People look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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“Some of these folks were bedridden, some were dehydrated because they have not been able to get any water or food for a number of days,” Armando Valdés Prieto, a lawyer and volunteer, told NBC News by phone of one building he visited. “Some of them didn’t even remember when they’d last eaten.”

In buildings with no power, diabetic patients were unable to refrigerate their insulin.

Elevators were also no longer working in some of the residences, leaving many with limited mobility unable to leave their apartments, he added.

“An elderly gentleman asked me to take him to a shelter days after the storm because he felt he would be better tended to at a shelter than in an eighth-floor apartment where he could not get up and down to,” he said.

Hurricane Maria, which made landfall last Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane, has been blamed for 18 deaths in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Rep. Luis Vega Ramos, who was also helping the volunteer efforts, said they've had to take about a dozen people to hospitals in the last few days.

Related: Puerto Ricans Plead for More Federal Aid to Devastated Island

He described visiting a senior center run by nuns in a remote part of San Juan that housed about 90 bedridden people.

The center needed “a constant supply of water” to care for its residents and needed more diesel, he said by phone while visiting different sites.

“That remains the fear — that they may run out of supplies, they may run out of diesel,” he said. “Everybody is struggling, but they’re facing the struggle with a lot of strength.”

Photos: Powerless Puerto Rico Struggles to Recover Post Maria

Cruz said she had visited retirement homes where residents were shouting for help. "They have been left alone, they cannot walk, the elevator is not working," she explained.

The mayor said Puerto Rico desperately needed diesel, gas, water and food. “It’s really a life or death situation,” she told NBC News on Tuesday afternoon.

RELATED: Puerto Rico in darkness

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Puerto Rico in darkness
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Puerto Rico in darkness
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: San Juan is seen during a blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017 in Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 23: Jaime Degraff sits outside as he tries to stay cool as people wait for the damaged electrical grid to be fixed after Hurricane Maria passed through the area on September 23, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A police car patrols a dark street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico battled dangerous floods Friday after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called Maria the most devastating storm in a century after it destroyed the US territory's electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan Puerto Rico, late on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico has been battling dangerous floods after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A police car patrols a road as Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico in Fajardo, on September 20, 2017. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: Buildings are completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: San Juan is seen during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm on September 20, 2017 San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely impacted. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has announced a curfew, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., effective Wednesday through Saturday. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Satellite night images of #PuertoRico. #HurricaneMaria knocked out power grid, millions without electricity. More @… https://t.co/YACDm1nDtE
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: A building is dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: The Miramar neighborhood is completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: Buildings in San Juan are completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
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Related: Here's How to Help Victims of Hurricane Maria

President Donald Trump announced that he will visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday amid desperate pleas from officials and residents for more aid.

Trump also said Tuesday that the federal government was waiving regulations requiring Puerto Rico to match FEMA disaster relief funds.

But Rep. Nydia Veláquez, D-NY, said that wasn’t enough since the waiver only applies for the next few months. She also called on Trump to waive the Jones Act for at least a year. The 1920 statute requires that any transportation of goods to Puerto Rico be done by U.S. ships, which significantly drives up costs.

Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday that "Puerto Rico is being treated just like any other state."

Photos: Satellite Photos Show Puerto Rico Left in the Dark

"We need you to know that we are working our butts off to help the people of Puerto Rico and we are going to continue to push forward as much as we can," he told MSNBC.

U.S. defense officials said Tuesday afternoon the hospital ship USS Comfort is making preparations to head to Puerto Rico and the ship should arrive in about 9-10 days.

Meanwhile, Oscar “Can” Santiago, the mayor of the town of Vega Alta, described a desperate situation where seemingly simple tasks were virtually impossible to accomplish, putting his town’s residents at risk.

A local hospital was going to have to shut down due to a lack of diesel fuel, not because it wasn’t available — there’s a gas station nearby, he said — but because the town did not have a way to store and transport the fuel to the hospital. His own office of emergency management also ran out of diesel.

Santiago said he had asked members of the National Guard and corps of engineers for a truck on Saturday, but he was still waiting.

“I have not received any kind of help,” said the mayor of the coastal northern town, who had to travel to San Juan to make requests at the central office of emergency management because he was unable to make phone calls from his town.

“I had to take a generator from our office of emergency management and give it to a family with a baby that needed oxygen,” said Santiago. 

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