Trump warns storm-rav­aged Puerto Rico that fed­eral re­lief aid won’t last ‘for­ever’

The Buffalo News - - CONTINUED FROM THE COVER - By Peter Baker and Caitlin Dickerson NEW YORK TIMES

WASH­ING­TON – The mes­sage was as stark as it was star­tling. Three weeks af­ter a killer hur­ri­cane rav­aged Puerto Rico, Pres­i­dent Trump in­di­cated Thurs­day that he was los­ing pa­tience. At least some of the blame for the con­tin­u­ing cri­sis is yours, he told the U.S. is­land ter­ri­tory, and the fed­eral govern­ment will not stay “for­ever.”

While most res­i­dents en­dured an­other day with­out elec­tric­ity and many with­out water or other ba­sic ser­vices, Trump up­braided Puerto Rico’s lead­er­ship for mis­man­age­ment that pre­dated the storm and said troops and emer­gency work­ers would even­tu­ally leave. Caught off guard, his ad­vis­ers scram­bled to re­as­sure Puerto Rico that Wash­ing­ton was not aban­don­ing it.

The pres­i­dent’s warn­ing came on the same day the House ap­proved $36.5 bil­lion in aid for nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing in Puerto Rico, with the tab ris­ing weekly. Fed­eral agen­cies ex­pect to spend years help­ing the is­land re­build. But Trump, who has been crit­i­cized for a slow and not al­ways em­pa­thetic re­sponse to the storms that dev­as­tated Puerto Rico, sought to re­fo­cus re­spon­si­bil­ity to where he be­lieves it be­longs.

“‘Puerto Rico sur­vived the Hur­ri­canes, now a fi­nan­cial cri­sis looms largely of their own mak­ing.’ says Sharyl At­tkisson,” he wrote on Twit­ter, 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 tweets set off alarms in San Juan, the Puerto Ri­can cap­i­tal, where Ri­cardo A. Ros­sello, the gover­nor, anx­iously called John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to seek an ex­pla­na­tion. Kelly re­as­sured him that no fed­eral re­sources were be­ing with­drawn any­time soon and then made an unan­nounced visit to the White House briefing room to re­peat the mes­sage for the news me­dia.

“Our coun­try will stand with those Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens in Puerto Rico un­til the job is done,” Kelly said. The pres­i­dent, he as­serted, merely meant that even­tu­ally the fed­eral govern­ment would com­plete its mis­sion. “The whole point is to start to work your­self out of a job,” he said.

Shortly af­ter­ward, his deputy, Kirst­jen Nielsen, in ac­cept­ing Trump’s nom­i­na­tion to suc­ceed Kelly as sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity, added her own sooth­ing words. “I also know that this re­build­ing will take years, and I want to echo what the pres­i­dent has said many times: We will re­main fully en­gaged in the long re­cov­ery ef­fort ahead of us,” she said in the East Room.

But Trump did not say that Thurs­day, even when given the op­por­tu­nity to clar­ify dur­ing the cer­e­mony for­mally an­nounc­ing Nielsen’s nom­i­na­tion. In­stead, his mes­sage pro­voked an­other wave of crit­i­cism from the is­land and its sup­port­ers. They ex­pressed as­ton­ish­ment that Trump would as­sail the very peo­ple he was sup­posed to be as­sist­ing, in con­trast to the tone he has taken with Flor­ida and Texas, where Na­tional Guard troops and Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency work­ers are also still help­ing with hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery.

San Juan Mayor Car­men Yulin Cruz, who has been crit­i­cal of Trump’s re­sponse and re­buked 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.”

Ros­sello was more re­strained, as he has been through pre­vi­ous rounds of crit­i­cism by Trump. “I re­it­er­ate my plea that, as U.S. ci­ti­zens, we are not ask­ing for bet­ter treat­ment or less treat­ment,” he 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.”

Three weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria hit, 83 per­cent of the is­land was still with­out power, 36 per­cent had no run­ning water, and 45 per­cent was with­out telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vices.

Hospi­tals are op­er­at­ing on gen­er­a­tor power, which is ex­pen­sive and un­re­li­able. Although 86 per­cent of su­per­mar­kets are now open, the govern­ment could not en­sure that they were fully stocked. And ma­jor road­ways have been cleared of de­bris, but many Puerto Ri­cans are still re­ly­ing on FEMA for food and water de­liv­ered to neigh­bor­hoods by lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

On a he­li­copter trip Thurs­day morn­ing to Cidra, a small city an hour south of San Juan, the dev­as­tated land­scape was speck­led with homes that were with­out roofs and cov­ered with tarps. Al­most ev­ery street was lined with huge piles of tree branches and other de­bris be­gin­ning to rot and stink.

Army Lt. Gen. Jef­frey S. Buchanan, who is lead­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary’s re­lief ef­fort in Puerto Rico, said con­di­tions were only some­what bet­ter since he ar­rived two weeks ago. “It’s still com­plete dev­as­ta­tion across the is­land,” he said. “It’s go­ing to take a long time to fix.”

Re­spond­ing to Trump’s tweets Thurs­day that the mil­i­tary could not stay in Puerto Rico for­ever, Buchanan said: “That’s true. We don’t do re­cov­ery. We do emer­gency re­sponse.”

He also said he had ex­pe­ri­enced no pres­sure to start pulling out troops: “Not at all, none what­so­ever. I’ve got­ten ev­ery­thing I’ve asked for.”

U.S. Depart­ment of De­fense via New York Times

Lt. Gen. Jef­frey S. Buchanan, right, lead­ing U.S. mil­i­tary’s re­lief ef­fort, and Puerto Rico Na­tional Guard sol­diers un­load sup­ply he­li­copter in Jayuya. Re­act­ing to Pres­i­dent Trump’s as­ser­tion that aid won’t last “for­ever,” Buchanan said: “That’s true. We don’t do re­cov­ery. We do emer­gency re­sponse.”

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