Trump warns Puerto Rico aid isn’t ‘for­ever’

Houston Chronicle - - NATION | FROM THE COVER - By Peter Baker and Luis Ferré-Sadurní

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sug­gested again Thurs­day that Puerto Rico bore some of the blame for its cur­rent cri­sis fol­low­ing twin hur­ri­canes and warned that there were lim­its to how long he would keep troops and fed­eral emer­gency work­ers on the is­land to help.

Trump, who has been crit­i­cized for a slow and not al­ways em­pa­thetic re­sponse to the storms that rav­aged the U.S. ter­ri­tory, sounded off in a se­ries of early-morn­ing Twit­ter posts. An­gry about the crit­i­cism, he has sought to re­fo­cus blame to where he be­lieves it be­longs — the lead­er­ship of the is­land it­self, which in his view mis­man­aged its af­fairs long be­fore the winds blew apart its in­fra­struc­ture.

“‘Puerto Rico sur­vived the hur­ri­canes, now a fi­nan­cial cri­sis looms largely of their own mak­ing.’ says Sharyl At­tkisson,” he wrote, cit­ing the host of a pub­lic af­fairs show on Sin­clair Broad­cast Group tele­vi­sion sta­tions. “A to­tal lack of ac­count­abil­ity say the Gover­nor. Elec­tric and all in­fra­struc­ture was dis­as­ter be­fore hur­ri­canes. Congress to de­cide how much to spend. We can­not keep FEMA, the Mil­i­tary & the First Re­spon­ders, who have been amaz­ing (un­der the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances) in P.R. for­ever!”

The threat may mean less than it ap­pears — fed­eral gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials quickly said that they were not pulling out of Puerto Rico any­time soon. But it pro­voked an­other wave of crit­i­cism from the is­land and its sup­port­ers who ex­pressed as­ton­ish­ment that the pres­i­dent would as­sail the very peo­ple he was sup­posed to be as­sist­ing.

‘Ask­ing for equal treat­ment’

Car­men Yulín Cruz, the mayor of the cap­i­tal of San Juan who has been crit­i­cal of Trump’s re­sponse and blasted by him in re­turn, 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 non­drink­able wa­ter, lack of food, lack of medicine while you keep oth­ers ea­ger to help from reach­ing us.”

Gov. Ri­cardo Ros­selló 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,” Ros­selló 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.”

Puerto Rico was al­ready fac­ing deep fi­nan­cial trou­bles be­fore Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria swept across the is­land, knock­ing out many ba­sic ser­vices. Three weeks af­ter Maria hit, 83 per­cent of the is­land was still with­out power, 36 per­cent had no run­ning wa­ter and 45 per­cent was with­out telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vices.

While some sort of nor­malcy has been re­stored in San Juan, res­i­dents of the more iso­lated in­te­rior mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties were still strug­gling with a pre­car­i­ous health sit­u­a­tion and prob­lems with aid dis­tri­bu­tion. Al­though 86 per­cent of su­per­mar­kets are open, the gov­ern­ment could not en­sure that they were fully stocked with food and wa­ter.

De­spite Trump’s tweets, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said the fed­eral gov­ern­ment would be help­ing Puerto Rico re­cover from storm dam­age for years. The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency posted its own mes­sage on Twit­ter: “#FEMA will be w/ Puerto Rico, USVI, every state, ter­ri­tory im­pacted by a dis­as­ter every day, sup­port­ing through­out their re­sponse & re­cov­ery.”

Sit­u­a­tion still pre­car­i­ous

Other agen­cies were com­mit­ted to long-term ef­forts as well. The U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers, for ex­am­ple, is help­ing re­build the elec­tri­cal grid, a con­struc­tion ef­fort that could take years. In ad­di­tion, other agen­cies help­ing in re­cov­ery ef­forts, like the Coast Guard, have a per­ma­nent pres­ence on the is­land and are un­likely to go any­where.

As for Trump’s as­ser­tion that he could not keep “first re­spon­ders” on the is­land for­ever, one of­fi­cial called it non­sense. Such re­spon­ders in­clude po­lice of­fi­cers, fire­fight­ers and paramedics from lo­cal­i­ties around the United States who are not un­der the con­trol of the pres­i­dent.

While search and res­cue op­er­a­tions and storm-re­lated deaths are be­com­ing less com­mon, the sit­u­a­tion on much of the is­land re­mained pre­car­i­ous. Hospi­tals are op­er­at­ing on gen­er­a­tor power, which is ex­pen­sive and un­re­li­able. And ma­jor road­ways have been cleared of de­bris, open­ing ac­cess to cities, but many Puerto Ri­cans are still re­ly­ing on FEMA to pro­vide food and wa­ter, which are be­ing de­liv­ered to neigh­bor­hoods by lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

Dennis M. Rivera / New York Times

Lt. Gen. Jef­frey Buchanan, who is head­ing the mil­i­tary ef­fort in Puerto Rico, speaks with vol­un­teers dis­tribut­ing canned goods Thurs­day in Cidra, Puerto Rico. Buchanan said con­di­tions are only some­what im­proved since he ar­rived two weeks ago.

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