In Puerto Rico, a growing sense of despair over aid
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 Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, gave voice to this tension on 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.
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.”
“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 that is 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.
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 we are 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 that “we’ve made tremendous strides” responding in Puerto Rico, and he pointed to the 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.”
Trump has also referenced conditions that existed in Puerto Rico before the storm and mentioned the expected cost of the rebuilding effort.
“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort ... will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” Trump said during a speech Friday.
Trump repeatedly asserted that his administration was facing unprecedented challenges in responding to a storm “of historic and catastrophic severity” and described Puerto Rico as “an island surrounded by water — big water, ocean water.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who introduced Duke at the briefing Friday, again praised her and the Trump administration’s efforts. While the Trump administration has in recent days ramped up its efforts as it became apparent the initial response was inadequate, Rosselló acknowledged Friday there is still more to be done.
“The response still is not where it needs to be, certainly it’s not,” Rosselló told MSNBC on Friday morning. He added: “We do need more help.”
Airmen with the Connecticut Air National Guard’s 103rd Airlift Wing secured a cargo bay Friday as they prepared to depart for Puerto Rico. The aircraft will deliver supplies and support equipment for Connecticut National Guard troops there.
The hospital ship USNS Comfort was prepared for departure Friday from Norfolk Naval Station to support hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.