President Donald Trump is pledging to help Puerto Rico continue to recover from Hurricane Maria’s devastation. He is defending his administration’s handling of the disaster that knocked out power to the U.S. island’s 3.4 million people.
In an airport hangar in Puerto Rico, Trump also sought praise from local officials. He repeated that they have to help with the recovery and scolded them for a longstanding budget crisis. Trump said, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.”
He was referring to Puerto $74 billion public debt load and a decade-old economic recession.
Puerto Ricans who have called Washington’s work on the island insufficient “have to give us more help,” he said before leaving Washington, without explaining how they have come up short in his eyes.
Air Force One brought the president, first lady Melania Trump and aides to Puerto Rico in late morning. They were expected to spend more than five hours on the ground, meeting first responders, local officials and some of the 3.4 million people whose lives have been upended by a hurricane that, in the president’s words, left the island U.S. territory “flattened.”
The plane descended over a landscape marked by mangled palm trees, metal debris strewn near homes and patches of stripped trees, yet with less devastation evident than farther from San Juan.
As he headed out to visit the island earlier, Trump praised the federal response, telling reporters at the White House that “it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done.” He added that at “a local level, they have to give us more help.”
Added Trump: “In Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it’s actually a much tougher situation.”
The trip will be Trump’s fourth areas battered by storms during an unusually violent hurricane season that has also seen parts of Texas, Florida, Louisiana and the U.S. Virgin Islands inundated by floodwaters and hit by high winds.
Nearly two weeks after the Puerto Rico storm, 95 percent of electricity customers remain without power, including some hospitals. And much of the countryside is still struggling to access such basic necessities as food, fresh water and cash.
Trump’s visit follows a weekend in which he aggressively pushed back against critics, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. Trump responded angrily on Twitter, deriding the “poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.”
“They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” he added, scoffing at “politically motivated ingrates” who had criticized the federal work, and insisting that “tremendous progress” was being made.
Cruz had accused the administration of “killing us with the inefficiency” and begged the president to “make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives.”
Trump said Tuesday that Cruz has “come back a long way” in her criticism, noting the recent moderation in her remarks. He added: “The first responders, the military, FEMA, they have done an incredible job in Puerto Rico. And whether it’s her or anybody else, they’re all starting to say it.”
Cruz told the White House she would attend the president’s first event: a briefing on hurricane relief efforts at the airport hangar, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Trump and his wife were to attend briefings and meet with Gov. Ricardo Rossello, as well as the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands. They were also meeting Navy and Marine Corps personnel on the flight deck of the USS Kearsarge.
Even before the storm hit on Sept. 20, Puerto Rico was in dire condition thanks to a decade-long economic recession that had left its infrastructure, including the island’s power lines, in a sorry state. Maria was the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century and unleashed floods and mudslides that knocked out the island’s entire electrical grid and telecommunications, along with many roads.
Trump and other administration officials have worked in recent days to reassure Americans that recovery efforts are going well and combat a perception that the president failed to fully grasp the magnitude of the storm’s destruction in its immediate aftermath.
While early response efforts were hampered by logistical challenges, officials say that conditions, especially in the capital, have improved.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are now more than 10,000 federal officials on the ground on the island, and 45 percent of customers now have access to drinking water. Businesses are also beginning to re-open, with 60 percent of retail gas stations now up and running.
The Health and Human Services Department says federal medical teams with their own equipment and supplies have been sent to help provide care at Centro Medico, a major trauma center in San Juan. Additional teams have been sent to five hospitals in other parts of the island.
The department has also placed a liaison in each hospital that’s open, to make sure the facilities can get timely shipments of fuel needed to keep generators running, as well as medical supplies.
For many, however, Washington’s response isn’t enough. On Monday, the nonprofit relief group Oxfam announced that it would be taking the rare step of intervening in an American disaster, citing its outrage over what it called a “slow and inadequate response.”
Story compiled with information from The Associated Press.