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Puerto Rico Governor Calls for 'Equal Treatment' After Hurricane


President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Governor Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 19, 2017, in Washington.

In an extended Oval Office meeting, Puerto Rico's governor pleaded with President Donald Trump for equal treatment for the hurricane-devastated island, repeatedly reminding him that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

"Give the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico the adequate resources, treat us the same as citizens in Texas, in Florida and elsewhere, we will come out of this stronger," said Governor Ricardo Rossello.

WATCH: Rosello on hurricane recovery effort

Puerto Rico Gov Rosello on Hurricane Recovery
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Trump again defended the federal government's response to the devastation left a month ago by Hurricane Maria.

The president declared the response in Puerto Rico by the U.S. government a "10" on a scale of one to 10.

"We have provided so much, so fast," he said.

The governor of the U.S. commonwealth declined to put a grade on the response, but did say "we're thankful to the president for supporting these petitions to Congress" and promising "no U.S. citizen will be left behind."

At one point, with a group of reporters still in the Oval Office, Trump turned to Rossello and asked: "Did we do a great job?"

The governor answered, "You responded immediately."

Less than 20 percent of the people have electricity and 35 percent are still without drinking water in Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island 1,600 kilometers southeast of the U.S. mainland.

Trump has repeatedly emphasized the fragile state of the island's power plant and massive debt before the Sept. 20 storm, which he mentioned again during Thursday's meeting with Rossello.

"There's never been a case where power plants were gone," said Trump. "You can't just fix the poles."

WATCH: Trump on island's power grid

Trump on Puerto Rico's Electric Grid, Payment Plan
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The president says Puerto Rico's debt totals $120 billion and he is considering both loans and grants to the commonwealth, but repayment of federal loans will have to come before repayment of some private debt.

The island is also grappling with reports that some local workers have not been distributing relief supplies, including food.

"There has been corruption on the island and we can't have that," Trump said, alongside Rosello. "I think the governor will do something about that."

Rossello responded that the National Guard is assisting with logistics to ensure delivery, auditors are policing accountability, and the Department of Justice of Puerto Rico is looking into the alleged involvement of local officials in aid distribution irregularities.

The contents of a damaged home can be seen as recovery efforts continue following Hurricane Maria near the town of Comerio, Puerto Rico, October 7, 2017.
The contents of a damaged home can be seen as recovery efforts continue following Hurricane Maria near the town of Comerio, Puerto Rico, October 7, 2017.

Criticism of response

The national government's effort in assisting residents in several southern states on the mainland to recover from other hurricanes has generally won favorable reviews, but its performance in Puerto Rico has been more problematic.

Rossello, who said in the Oval Office on Thursday that "this is not over by a long shot," has been largely supportive of the U.S. government's recovery effort.

Rossello is the 38-year-old son of a former governor and is a member of the New Progressive Party, which advocates statehood for Puerto Rico.

Rossello and others have justified the relatively slow response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of the logistics in reaching remote parts of the island.

However, Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto of San Juan, the territory's capital and its biggest city, has frequently criticized that assertion.

Cruz Soto of the Popular Democratic Party, which advocates maintaining the island's status as a self-governed unincorporated U.S. territory, is expected to run for governor in 2020. She has called the federal government's excuses for not delivering aid quicker ridiculous, offensive and unthinkable.

Trump earlier had voiced mixed sentiments about helping the island recover, saying the national government would assist it as long as needed.

Trump on Thursday again emphasized that the surge force of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the 18,000 members of the U.S. military dispatched to the area will eventually depart.

"At some point FEMA has to leave, first responders have to leave," Trump said.

The president visited the island earlier this month to assess recovery efforts, at one point tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of islanders.