WHITE HOUSE —
U.S. President Donald Trump witnessed first hand the destruction in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico Tuesday, and met with the island’s leaders, including some who have been among the harshest critics of Washington’s response to the disaster.
"I’ve never seen people working so hard in my life," Trump said as he spoke to a welcoming party of federal and local officials at Luis Muñoz Air National Guard base.
Trump used the occasion to heap praise on federal and military recovery efforts that have come in for harsh criticism for being too little and too late to save the lives of storm victims in isolated areas left without water and other necessities for more than a week.
WATCH: Trump visits Puerto Rico
Just after Trump wrapped up his visit, authorities raised the death toll on Puerto Rico from 16 to 34. The president had compared the relatively low number of fatalities with the more than 1800 people killed by Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005.
“Sixteen versus literally thousands of people,” Trump said. “You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”He made light of the fact that the unexpectedly high cost of hurricane assistance was adding billions of dollars to the federal budget deficit. “Now, I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. Because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico and that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives,” he said.
In Photos: Trump in San Juan
Meeting with governor, military personnel
Trump shook hands with the Democratic Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a vocal critic of the federal response, but did not mention her as he complimented Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello, also a Democrat, and others for their leadership.
“Right from the beginning this governor did not play politics. He didn’t play it at all. He was saying it like it was and he was giving us the highest grades and I want to on behalf of our country I want to thank you.”
Later, however, the president was overheard telling residents that Mayor Cruz was among those who had done a good job in organizing and leading post-hurricane recovery work.
Cruz incurred Trump’s ire last week when she responded angrily to a comment by acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke that the Puerto Rico rescue efforts were “a good news story.” She fired back, “This is not a good news story. This is a people dying story."
Trump responded to the mayor with a tweet charging that she had been told by Democrats, "you must be nasty to Trump."
Cruz, whose home was damaged in the storm, is living in a shelter with her family. "There’s only one goal and it’s saving lives," Cruz said Sunday on ABC's This Week, when asked about Trump's comments about her. "Any dialogue that goes on just has to produce results. All I did last week, or actually even this week, is ask for help.”
Other critics have been unrelenting in their assessments of the federal disaster relief effort, and of Trump for using the hurricane for political gain.
Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, (D-NY) who is of Puerto Rican descent and visited relatives on the island after the hurricane, said Tuesday there is a big differences between the dire conditions facing storm victims and the president’s rosy assessment. “I totally disagree with the president,” she told CNN.
“Listening to that shows me the disconnect between the president’s understanding the level of destruction and devastation,” Velasquez said. "Most of the people there are in a mode of surviving, attending to their families. They can’t drive. They don’t have fuel. There is no gasoline."
After leaving the air base, Trump’s motorcade passed broken highway dividers and hundreds of downed trees as small pockets of local residents could be seen along the route taking photos, according to pool reports from the scene. One woman held up a sign that read "You are a bad hombre."
The president and First Lady Melania Trump stopped for carefully choreographed events at which they handed out relief supplies. Trump received a huge cheer when he walked into one event, where he was greeted by signs that read "Proud Americans," "Let's Make Puerto Rico Great Again" and "God bless You Mr. President."
Governor Rossello told a news briefing Monday in San Juan that more than 720 of the island's 1,100 gas stations are now up and running, and that he expects more fuel supplies in the coming days. Puerto Rico relies on fuel supplies shipped from the mainland United States.
The governor said more than half the water and sewer services are still not restored, and that federal and local authorities are working together to keep 50 of the island’s 69 hospitals operational. He said the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort was due to arrive Tuesday or Wednesday.