WHITE HOUSE —
U.S. President Donald Trump and members of his administration are defending the government's response to the catastrophic hurricane damage U.S. territories in the Caribbean have suffered.
Nearly a week after the latest intense tropical cyclone hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Trump told reporters Tuesday: "Both have been devastated — and I mean absolutely devastated — by Hurricane Maria, and we're doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people of both places."
The president said his administration and the U.S. military had made "a massive effort" to help storm victims, and the people in the U.S. territories "know how hard we're working and what a good job we're doing."
He did not refer directly to complaints that have been raised about the slow pace of government action to help storm victims on the U.S. islands, compared with all-out efforts mounted earlier in the month when hurricanes wreaked havoc in Texas and Florida.
Trump said he would visit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands next Tuesday.
Around the clock
Thousands of federal government personnel are at work on the islands, according to Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
"With our partners, we continue to conduct 24-hour operations, aggressively conducting search-and-rescue operations," she told reporters after meeting with Trump.
The federal government, Duke added, is bringing in "commodities, food and water to the islands, restoring power at hospitals, ports, airports and other critical facilities."
The White House said Trump made it clear to senior officials Tuesday "that there is no such thing as over-responding, and that he expects all elements of the federal government to plan for long-term support to the governors of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands."
As of Tuesday, officials said, only 11 of 69 hospitals in Puerto Rico had fuel for their emergency generators. The power grid throughout the island of 3.4 million people was damaged so badly by Hurricane Maria that officials have predicted it will take more than a few months to restore reliable electricity service.
"People are dying," according to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who said two people who needed life support died Monday as a consequence of a lack of diesel fuel for hospital generators.
“I fear that if in fact there is not enough urgency in the response, we will be talking about a very different set of stories in the days to come,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from the state of Florida.
Soldiers en route
Thousands of Army soldiers are to arrive in Puerto Rico over the next few days, according to federal officials. Sixteen vessels from the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have also been deployed, including the USNS Comfort hospital ship.
"The recovery process will be a very, very difficult one. We will get through this, and we will get through it together," Trump said at the White House during a news conference with visiting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The White House announced that it was increasing funds for Puerto Rico, which has been mired in economic crisis, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, to support total reimbursement of necessary emergency work for 180 days.
"We're not running out of money. Is money getting low? Sure," said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA has been in touch with DHS and Congress "to say, 'We may be in for a problem. Let's anticipate that [and] get the money flowing,'" Long said.
Together with Duke, he briefed reporters outside the White House after meeting with the president on hurricane relief and recovery efforts.
'People above debt'
Cruz acknowledged the serious financial problems Puerto Rico has long been facing, but said, "You don't put debt above people; you put people above debt."
Some opposition lawmakers in Congress have criticized the president for his numerous comments on Twitter in recent days about topics other than the disaster in Puerto Rico. They also expressed dismay about comments he has made suggesting that Puerto Rico's public debt problems contributed to the crisis.
Representative Joe Crowley of New York, a Democrat, said it was "absolutely ridiculous" for the president to mention debt "when people are suffering and dying."
Referring to Trump's business career before entering politics, Crowley added: "Here's a president who used bankruptcy throughout his entire career."
Puerto Rico remains without power, except for generators, and telephone service is spotty. Officials have struggled to provide food and water for those affected by the worst storm to hit the island of 3.4 million people in decades.
"It's going to take a long time to restore the power grid," Long said.
There are several reasons for that: The island's power infrastructure was already in bad shape before the storm; Puerto Rico's utility workers are storm victims themselves; and bringing in help from other power supplies is difficult. Repair crews cannot simply drive their trucks in from adjacent states, as they could following recent hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been assigned to manage the emergency restoration of the island's electrical network, Long said.
An onslaught by three major storms over the past few weeks — Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria — has focused attention on the need for better preparedness in U.S. Southern states and territories, federal officials have said.
"I think the last 35 days or so have been a gut check for Americans that we do not have a true culture of preparedness in this country," Brock told reporters.
Just having three days of supplies on hand is not sufficient, he said, by way of example. People need to also have adequate funds in reserve to get them through such large disasters.
Maria, which was the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years, has been blamed for at least 27 deaths in the Caribbean. On Tuesday, it was downgraded to a tropical storm off the East Coast of the United States.