Trump riles Puerto Rico, says storm aid has limits
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump suggested again Thursday that Puerto Rico, devastated by two hurricanes last month, bears some of the blame for its current crisis, and warned that there are limits to how long he will keep troops and federal emergency workers on the island to help.
Puerto Rico has been reeling since Hurricane Maria struck three weeks ago, leaving death and destruction in an unparalleled humanitarian crisis. Forty-five deaths in Puerto Rico have been blamed on Maria, 90 percent of the island is still without power, and the government says it will likely be March before electricity can be completely restored.
Trump tweeted: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
In a series of tweets, the president said “electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.” He blamed Puerto Rico for its looming financial crisis and “a total lack of accountability.”
Federal government officials quickly said they were not pulling out of Puerto Rico anytime soon. But the president’s tweets provoked a wave of criticism from the island and its supporters.
Carmen Yulin Cruz, the
mayor of San Juan who has been critical of Trump’s hurricane response, condemned his latest message as adding “insult to injury” and called on international organizations to step in to prevent “the genocide that will result from” Trump’s inaction.
“Tweet away your hate to mask your administration’s mishandling of this humanitarian crisis,” she said, addressing the president.
“While you are amusing yourself throwing paper towels at us, your compatriots and the world are sending love and help our way. Condemn us to a slow death of non-drinkable water, lack of food, lack of medicine while you keep others eager to help from reaching us.”
Gov. Ricardo Rossello was more restrained as he has been through previous rounds of criticism by Trump. After the tweets Thursday morning, he called the White House and said he received assurances that the president fully supported recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
“I reiterate my plea that, as U.S. citizens, we are not asking for better treatment or less treatment,” Rossello said. “We are asking for equal treatment. We’re not asking for anything that another U.S. jurisdiction, having passed through the same situation, wouldn’t be asking at this juncture.”
In Washington, Trump administration officials sought Thursday to reassure Puerto Ricans that the U.S. government remains fully committed to the territory’s long-term recovery, despite the president’s tweets.
Standing beside Trump at a White House event in which she was formally nominated to be secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen addressed long-term hurricane recovery efforts.
“I also know that this rebuilding will take years, and I want to echo what the president has said many times: We will remain fully engaged in the long recovery effort ahead of us,” said Nielsen, currently the deputy White House chief of staff.
John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, similarly told reporters that “our country will stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done.” Asked whether Trump considers Puerto Ricans to be U.S. citizens, Kelly said he did.
Kelly, who said he spoke with Rossello earlier in the day, said Trump’s tweets were meant to communicate his hope that Federal Emergency Management Agency workers and the military can withdraw and hand off efforts to the Puerto Rican government “sooner rather than later.”
“They’re not going to be there forever,” Kelly said. “The whole point is to start to work yourself out of a job, and then transition to the rebuilding process.”
John Rabin, a top FEMA official involved in the response to Hurricane Maria, said in an interview that “as Puerto Rico needs assistance from the federal government, we’re there to provide it.”
Democrats said Trump’s tweets were “shameful,” given that the 3 million-plus U.S. citizens on Puerto Rico are confronting the kind of hardships that would draw howls of anger if they affected a state. One-third of the island lacks clean running water, and just 8 percent of its roads are passable, according to government statistics.
“It is shameful that President Trump is threatening to abandon these Americans when they most need the federal
government’s help,” said Maryland’s U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the tweets “heartbreaking,” adding that “we are all Americans, and we owe them what they need.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted: “There is still devastation, Americans are still dying. FEMA needs to stay until the job is done.”
Trump’s emails about Puerto Rico came as the House voted 353-69 Thursday to pass a disaster-aid package that includes provisions to avert a potential cash crisis in Puerto Rico resulting from Hurricane Maria. The Senate is expected to take up the measure next week.
The legislative aid package totals $36.5 billion and sticks close to a White House request. For now, it ignores demands from the Florida and Texas delegations, which together pressed for some $40 billion more.
This year’s series of disasters could put 2017 on track to rival Hurricane Katrina and other 2005 storms as the most costly set of disasters ever. Katrina required about $110 billion in emergency appropriations.
The current bill combines $18.7 billion for FEMA with $16 billion to permit the financially troubled federal flood insurance program to pay an influx of Hurricane Harvey-related claims. An additional $577 million would pay for Western firefighting efforts.
Up to $5 billion of the FEMA money could be used to help local governments remain functional as they endure unsustainable cash shortfalls in the aftermath of Maria, which has choked off revenue and strained resources.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., planned to visit Puerto Rico today. He has promised that the island will get what it needs.
“It’s not easy when you’re used to [living] an American way of life, and then somebody [tells] you that you’re going to be without power for six or eight months,” said Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who represents Puerto Rico as a nonvoting member of Congress. “It’s not easy when you … continue to suffer — see the suffering of the people without food, without water, and actually living in a humanitarian crisis.”
Several lawmakers from hurricane-hit states said a third interim aid request is expected shortly — with a final, hurricane recovery and rebuilding package likely to be acted upon by the end of the year.
Information for this article was contributed by Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press; by Philip Rucker, Arelis R. Hernandez, Manuel Roig-Franzia, Ed O’Keefe, Joel Achenbach and Mike DeBonis of
The Washington Post; and by Peter Baker and Luis Ferre-Sadurni of The New York Times.
Trump’s emails about Puerto Rico came as the House voted 353-69 Thursday to pass a disasteraid package that includes provisions to avert a potential cash crisis in Puerto Rico resulting from Hurricane Maria.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan (left), head of the military recovery effort in Puerto Rico, helps hand out supplies Thursday in the town of Cidra, an hour south of San Juan. Buchanan said conditions had improved only slightly since he arrived two weeks ago.