SAN JUAN – President Donald Trump came face to face with hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico on Tuesday after denouncing critics of the federal relief effort as “politically motivated ingrates” who need to step up their own response to the crisis.
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.
Pres. Trump and San Juan Mayor Cruz briefly greet each other and shake hands after Pres. Trump’s arrival in San Juan. pic.twitter.com/Pp2agJr2Bk
— Sade Baderinwa (@SadeABC) October 3, 2017
Trump told officials and relief workers assembled in an airplane hangar that the low death toll from Hurricane Maria — he was told 16 or 17 — was a tribute to the relief efforts. “We’ve saved a lot of lives,” he said, and singled out Gov. Ricardo Rossello for “giving us the highest praise.”
The help didn’t come cheap, he said: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
“But that’s fine,” he said, “because we’ve saved a lot of lives.”
The most prominent critic, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, attended the first event, in an airport hangar, shaking Trump’s hand as he went around a table greeting officials before sitting in in the shadow of a hulking, gray military plane.
“How are you?” he asked. Her response could not be heard. He thanked her. Days earlier, Cruz said the Trump administration was “killing us with the inefficiency,” pleading for more effective federal leadership in the crisis.
JUST IN: Trump excludes San Juan’s mayor from praise for Puerto Rico leaders https://t.co/fsDaGGPOnz pic.twitter.com/pFywcau2H0
— The Hill (@thehill) October 3, 2017
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.”
At least in his first moments on the island, Trump remained focused primarily on the reviews his administration is getting. “He didn’t play politics at all,” he said of the governor, making clear that he considers those who have criticized him to be politically driven. Trump misstated Maria as a Category 5 hurricane; it was Category 4 when it hit Puerto Rico.
“I appreciate your support and I know you appreciate ours,” he said. “Our country has really gone all out. It’s not only dangerous, it’s expensive. But I consider it a great honor.”
The trip is Trump’s fourth to 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.
Trump says Puerto Rico should be “very proud” only 16 people died compared to “a real catastrophe like Katrina.” pic.twitter.com/mkiaO4p9FE
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) October 3, 2017
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 Yulín 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 citizens 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 (FEMA), 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.
Trump to Puerto Rico: Your hurricane isn’t a “real catastrophe” like Katrina https://t.co/EM5hBTWb5l pic.twitter.com/4a4xuXDxzo
— Vox (@voxdotcom) October 3, 2017
The Health and Human Services Department (HHSD) 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.”