President Donald Trump is touting his administration’s disaster response in Puerto Rico, even as officials in the U.S. territory warn that much more help will be needed to fend off mass hunger and disease on the hurricane-ravaged island.
Adding to his running series of Twitter posts on the subject, Trump noted that Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello had praised Washington’s responsiveness to the island’s needs.
But the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, hit back at stories about how well the relief efforts are going.
"This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a life or death story," Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told CNN.
Yulin Cruz was reacting to an earlier comment by acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke that the life-saving efforts of relief workers was a "good news story."
"Maybe from where she’s standing it’s a good news story," Cruz said after hearing Duke’s remarks. "It’s irresponsible," she said, urging Duke to come to Puerto Rico to see for herself.
Duke is likely to visit the U.S. island territory to see the recovery effort next Tuesday, along with President Trump. They also will stop at the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were also hard-hit by Hurricane Maria.
As he began a speech Friday to the National Association of Manufacturers, Trump said he was sending thoughts and prayers to people of Puerto Rico.
"We’ve never seen anything like this," he said, noting that Washington is sending 10,000 federal personnel, including 5,000 National Guard members.
"The recovery effort probably hasn’t been seen for something like this," Trump said. "We want the people to be safe and sound, and we will be there every day until that happens."
Speaking at a hotel a few blocks from the White House, Trump mentioned that Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and infrastructure had been in poor shape beforehand, saying, "we’re literally starting from scratch."
The president said Puerto Rico’s government would have to work with Washington to determine how the cleanup will be funded and what to do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island.
"We’ve closely coordinated with territorial and local governments which unfortunately aren’t able to handle this catastrophe on their own," said the president.
A three-star general was named Thursday to head the relief effort, and a 1,000-bed hospital ship, the Comfort, was departing Friday from its home port in the U.S. state of Virginia to assist in the recovery. Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said 44 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals have been restored to operation.
But critics say the response may prove to be a case of too little, too late.
Russel Honore, highly lauded for commanding the military response after another big storm, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the military deployments to Puerto Rico should have begun at least four days earlier.
Honore told National Public Radio that because of its distance from the mainland and the loss of its power grid, Puerto Rico "is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina."
The head of the U.S. relief effort, Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, said Thursday it would be a long-term project. "We’re bringing in more," Buchanan told CNN. "This is a very, very long duration."