Puerto Rico recovery effort prompts ‘mayday’ call
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — The gulf between what Trump administration officials in Washington are saying about hurricane recovery efforts and what people in Puerto Rico are seeing on the ground came into sharp view Friday, as the mayor of the territory’s capital city made an exasperated plea for help that seemed to capture the collective despair of the island’s residents.
The administration has continued to defend its handling of the disaster, which has swelled into a humanitarian crisis amid widespread shortages of water and electricity, while local officials and residents alike have continued to plead for basic necessities.
Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, gave voice to this tension Friday when she criticized acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke’s assertion that the federal response is “a good-news story in terms of our ability to reach people” and the relatively low death toll.
In televised interviews, she said the situation on the island is anything but good news, with people scraping for food, and for their lives. Cruz delivered what she described as a “mayday” call to Washington in a news conference Friday, decrying federal and local government logistical failures in delivering basic goods to communities across Puerto Rico. She said the federal response has “collapsed,” emotionally describing how provincial mayors have tried unsuccessfully to retrieve crucial goods from the government command center in San Juan.
“People are dying in this country,” Cruz said. “I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us, to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy.”
Millions across Puerto Rico — a U.S. territory home to more than 3 million American citizens — have struggled since Hurricane Maria tore across the island on Sept. 20, leaving them without access to electricity, drinking water, food and medical supplies. Hospitals have lost power, leading to concerns of a public-health emergency.
The U.S. government’s initial response has come under increasing scrutiny, with critics comparing it to the poor federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and contrasting it unfavorably with the effort shown after two recent hurricanes battered Texas and Florida.
The Trump administration has bristled at the criticism. Tom Bossert, the White House homeland security adviser, said Friday: “I don’t accept that we’re doing anything short of everything we can do.”
Duke traveled to Puerto Rico on Friday and spoke briefly about her previous comments, saying she was proud of the work federal officials and first responders are doing.
“Clearly, the situation here in Puerto Rico, after the devastating hurricane, is not satisfactory, but together weare getting there, and the progress to date is very, very strong,” she said at a news briefing.
At least 16 people have died in Puerto Rico, officials say, a number that is expected to climb as the recovery continues.
President Donald Trump told reporters Friday while leaving the White House that “we’ve made tremendous strides” responding in Puerto Rico, and he pointed to the low death toll during his comments.
“The loss of life — it’s always tragic — but it’s been incredible the results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life,” Trump said. “People can’t believe how successful that has been relatively speaking.”