Trump warns Puerto Rico aid isn’t ‘forever’
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.
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.