Puerto Rico tweets draw a swift back­lash

Law­mak­ers and oth­ers de­nounce Trump’s threat to limit fed­eral dis­as­ter as­sis­tance.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Laura King and Noah Bier­man laura.king@la­times.com noah.bier­man @la­times.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Mil­ton Car­rero Galarza in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, and staff writer Lisa Mas­caro in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

WASH­ING­TON —Pres­i­dent Trump drew a sharp and dis­mayed back­lash Thurs­day from Demo­cratic law­mak­ers, ac­tivists and many Puerto Ri­cans with his threat to limit fed­eral and mil­i­tary help in the hur­ri­cane-bat­tered U.S. ter­ri­tory, where aid work­ers are warn­ing of a loom­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe.

More than three weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria raked the is­land, some 85% of the peo­ple re­main with­out power, with nearly half of its 3.4 mil­lion res­i­dents lack­ing run­ning water.

Food and ba­sic sup­plies re­main scarce in the moun­tain­ous in­te­rior, wa­ter­borne dis­eases pose a grow­ing threat, and many hospi­tals are in dire cir­cum­stances. Deaths at­trib­uted to the storm stand at 45, but the num­ber is ex­pected to rise.

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency this week ad­vised against “tam­per­ing with sealed or locked wells or drink­ing from th­ese wells” af­ter re­ports of Puerto Rico res­i­dents try­ing to get water from wells at “Su­per­fund” haz­ardous-waste sites.

In a se­ries of tweets early Thurs­day, Trump im­plied that Puerto Rico was to blame for its problems, and sug­gested he would not en­dorse the type of years-long, multi­bil­lion-dol­lar fed­eral re­cov­ery ef­fort that typ­i­cally fol­lows a storm of such mag­ni­tude, or an­other largescale dis­as­ter, strik­ing a U.S. lo­cale.

“We can­not keep FEMA, the Mil­i­tary & the First Re­spon­ders, who have been amaz­ing (un­der the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances) in P.R. for­ever!” Trump said in one tweet.

He also cited what he called a “to­tal lack of ac­count­abil­ity” on Puerto Rico’s part, and quoted a con­ser­va­tive jour­nal­ist who char­ac­ter­ized the is­land’s fi­nan­cial cri­sis as a prob­lem “of their own mak­ing.”

De­spite a tri­umphal tone dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial visit to the is­land last week, dur­ing which he praised the re­cov­ery ef­fort to date as “amaz­ing,” Trump has ap­peared to grow more and more frus­trated with crit­i­cism of the scope and tim­ing of the re­cov­ery ef­fort in Puerto Rico.

He and aides have painted a pic­ture of ro­bust progress, spo­ken at length of lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges be­ing over­come and lev­eled sharp crit­i­cism at some lo­cal of­fi­cials.

For some Puerto Ri­cans, fed­eral aid is ar­riv­ing — but slowly. In the western mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Las Marias, 62year-old Ana Bour­dain Jimenez had been cook­ing with water from a lo­cal stream, which sick­ened her son. On Thurs­day, a vol­un­teer brought her some drink­ing water — five bot­tles’ worth.

“We hardly see water like that here,” she said.

The ver­bal dust-up over Puerto Rico, whose res­i­dents are U.S. ci­ti­zens at birth, co­in­cides with a post­storm cash crunch for the is­land. On Thurs­day, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives ap­proved a $36.5-bil­lion mea­sure that would re­plen­ish govern­ment dis­as­ter aid funds and help Puerto Rico’s govern­ment keep work­ing. The Sen­ate is to take up the bill next week.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ri­cardo Ros­sello told law­mak­ers over the week­end that with­out con­gres­sional ac­tion, the ter­ri­tory’s govern­ment would be un­able to pay work­ers or ven­dors at the end of Oc­to­ber.

The gover­nor, who has been care­ful to avoid alien­at­ing Trump and con­sis­tently praised fed­eral ef­forts, re­sponded cau­tiously Thurs­day, although he made a point of re­fer­ring to the is­land’s sta­tus as an Amer­i­can ter­ri­tory and its peo­ple as ci­ti­zens. “The U.S. ci­ti­zens in Puerto Rico are re­quest­ing the sup­port that any of our fel­low ci­ti­zens would re­ceive across our na­tion,” he tweeted.

San Juan Mayor Car­men Yulin Cruz, who Trump said dis­played “poor lead­er­ship” af­ter she crit­i­cized el­e­ments of the fed­eral aid ef­fort, said Thurs­day that Trump’s hur­ri­cane re­sponse had proved him derelict in his duty as pres­i­dent.

“Puerto Ri­cans have suf­fered greatly in the past month. Two hur­ri­canes dev­as­tated our homes and our elec­tri­cal in­fra­struc­ture leav­ing us with­out the es­sen­tials to sur­vive: drink­able water, food and medicine,” Cruz said in a state­ment. “But per­haps more frus­trat­ing has been the dev­as­tat­ing ac­tions, time af­ter time, by a pres­i­dent whose tweets, com­ments and ac­tions seem to be taken out of a book on ‘how to add in­sult to in­jury’ rather than a book on ‘how to help dur­ing a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.’

“Mr. Pres­i­dent, you seem to want to dis­re­gard the moral im­per­a­tive that your ad­min­is­tra­tion has been un­able to ful­fill,” she said.

Some saw Trump’s seem­ing hos­til­ity to­ward the pre­dom­i­nantly Spanish-speak­ing is­land as fu­el­ing yet an­other di­vi­sive, racially tinged con­tro­versy of the pres­i­dent’s own mak­ing, in the mold of his re­sponse in Au­gust to deadly vi­o­lence af­ter a white su­prem­a­cist rally in Char­lottesville, Va.

In con­trast to a tweet about Puerto Ri­cans want­ing “ev­ery­thing done for them,” Trump has re­peat­edly praised the strength and de­ter­mi­na­tion of res­i­dents of Texas and Flor­ida, states that also were slammed this hur­ri­cane sea­son by storms Har­vey and Irma, re­spec­tively.

Vet­er­ans of dis­as­ter-re­sponse ef­forts have said that get­ting things back on track af­ter a de­struc­tive storm is gen­er­ally ex­pen­sive and drawn-out. Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina struck New Or­leans in 2005, the fed­eral govern­ment spent more than $100 bil­lion in Louisiana and else­where, with a mil­i­tary pres­ence last­ing months.

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Fran­cisco) said Trump’s tweets were not only “heart­break­ing” but re­flected a lack of knowl­edge about the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency’s role.

Sen­ate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) said on Twit­ter that “Amer­i­cans are still dy­ing” in Puerto Rico, and “FEMA needs to stay un­til the job is done.”

Oth­ers em­ployed even blunter lan­guage. “Step up & do your job,” Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) tweeted at Trump. “Stop ly­ing about how well things are go­ing in Puerto Rico. Stop try­ing to avoid re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Law­mak­ers with close ties to the is­land, or large Puerto Ri­can con­stituen­cies, have been scathing in their re­views of Trump’s per­for­mance, and were more so af­ter his tweets.

Rep. Ny­dia M. Ve­lazquez (D-N.Y.), a Puerto Rico na­tive, said in a state­ment that the pres­i­dent’s words and ac­tions had “called into ques­tion his abil­ity to lead.”

“We will not al­low the fed­eral govern­ment to aban­don Puerto Rico in its time of need,” she said.

Like many of Trump’s in­flam­ma­tory ut­ter­ances, the Puerto Rico tweets landed early Thurs­day, leav­ing White House aides the task of try­ing to soften a harsh tone later in the day.

The White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, framed the pres­i­dent’s tweets as mean­ing that first re­spon­ders, in­clud­ing the mil­i­tary, were al­ways mind­ful of the need for swift progress — “work­ing very hard to work your­self out of a job,” as he put it to re­porters.

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

IN JAYUYA, mo­torists wait for hours last week to fill up cars and gas cans. Pres­i­dent Trump ac­cused Puerto Rico of dis­play­ing a “to­tal lack of ac­count­abil­ity.”

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