No, not a ‘good news story’

Puerto Ri­cans dis­agree with Trump as­ser­tion of strong U.S. re­sponse

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page -

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.”

Like Ka­t­rina

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.”

Fuel short­age

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.”

Some praise

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

Kirsten Luce/The New York Times

Puerto Ri­cans line up out­side a bank in Hu­macao. Most on the is­land are strug­gling to meet ba­sic needs.

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