No, not a ‘good news story’
Puerto Ricans disagree with Trump assertion of strong U.S. response
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump continued to praise his administration Friday for doing “an incredible job” responding to Puerto Rico’s devastation, but millions on the island remained without power and clean water nine days after Hurricane Maria.
“We have done an incredible job considering there is absolutely nothing to work with,” Trump said Friday evening as he left the White House for a weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
“We’ve made tremendous strides. Very tough situation,” he said, later adding, “People can’t believe how successful it’s been.”
Only moments after Trump’s remarks were broadcast, however, the mayor of San Juan was televised with a indictment of the U.S. government’s treatment of the 3.5 million Americans on the island.
“I am begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying,” Carmen Yulin Cruz said into the cameras. “We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency.”
The mayor played a clip of the acting Homeland Security secretary, Elaine Duke, saying that she was “very satisfied” with the government’s response. Duke called it “a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place.”
The retort from Cruz: “This is, damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a ‘ life or death’ story. This is ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.”
Cruz delivered what she described as a “mayday” call to Washington, decrying logistical failures in delivering basic goods to communities across Puerto Rico.
“People are dying in this country,” the mayor said. “I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us, to save us from dying. … 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.
The U.S. government’s initial response has come under increasing scrutiny, with critics comparing it to the poor federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and contrasting it unfavorably with the effort shown after two recent hurricanes battered Texas and Florida.
The Trump administration has bristled at the criticism. Tom Bossert, the White House homeland security adviser, said Friday: “I don’t accept that we’re doing anything short of everything we can do.”
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 were 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. “The president and I will not be fully satisfied, however, until every Puerto Rican is back home, the power is back on, clean water is freely available, schools and hospitals are freely open, and the Puerto Rican economy is working.”
At least 16 people have died in Puerto Rico, officials say, a number that is expected to climb as the recovery continues.
Trump’s political adversaries saw an echo of the comments made in 2005 by then President George W. Bush, when he praised Michael Brown, then the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for doing “a heck of a job” in the midst of what was widely seen as a slow and botched recovery effort in New Orleans after Hur- ricane Katrina.
“The problem is, and this is what felled the Bush administration: Images tell the whole story,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who served as a communications director and senior adviser for President Barack Obama. “You had Trump on Twitter saying one thing, and then you have the images all over cable news telling a different story.”
The administration is unquestionably facing a daunting task. The hurricane knocked out nearly all of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and most of its cellular service. Roads are damaged, bridges have collapsed, and an unknown number of Puerto Ricans are stranded in the hills and hollows of the mountain interior without access to water or food.
On Friday, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said the government would begin commandeering and giving away at least 3,000 containers of cargo stuck at the Port of San Juan, much of it meant for the island’s supermarkets, if the stores themselves could not move the merchandise.
But hundreds of supermarkets remained closed because of a lack of diesel fuel to run their generators, and the high demand for diesel has created a black market for it. The local and federal governments have been unable to come up with a solution, said Manuel Reyes Alfonso, executive vice president of MIDA, the island’s food industry association.
Nelson Vázquez, president of the Selectos supermarket chain, said FEMA had done a poor job of managing the acute diesel shortage, which was crippling the food supply and leaving store shelves bare.
“They haven’t been quick enough,” Vázquez said. “If people start getting hungry and not getting supplies they need, they are going to start looting.”
The federal effort has come in for praise from some, including Jenniffer GonzálezColón, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner and the island’s representative in Congress. She said workers from FEMA, the Coast Guard and other agencies had begun the massive logistical challenge of restoring roads and communications almost as soon as the storm had passed.
“We’ve never before got this kind of communications with the federal government,” González-Colón said.
González-Colón said the federal and Puerto Rican governments’ recovery efforts had been hampered by the unique challenges of trying to restore power and distribute supplies on an island where the infrastructure has largely been destroyed.
“It’s not like Florida or Texas,” she said. “Those states the federal government sent aid by highways, by helicopter, by trains. In Puerto Rico, you can’t do that.”
The distinction was lost on a number of island residents Friday. In a stretch of Ocean Park, a middle-class San Juan neighborhood, David Wittig, a chiropractor, lamented the fact that he had seen no one from FEMA on his block, a virtual war zone of vile, thigh-high water, felled trees and flood-rotted furniture.
“No water. No MREs,” said Wittig, 49, referring to military meals. “No ice. No ice trucks. No hygiene products for women.” The New York Times, The Washington Post, Tribune News Service
Puerto Ricans line up outside a bank in Humacao. Most on the island are struggling to meet basic needs.
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