Trump Defends Response to ‘Historic’ Puerto Rico Storm Damage

Saturday, 30 September 2017, 04:32:45 AM. President Donald Trump defended his administration’s handling of the crisis in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, saying the federal government is fully engaged in responding to storm damage of “historic and catastrophic severity.”

President Donald Trump defended his administration’s handling of the crisis in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, saying the federal government is fully engaged in responding to storm damage of “historic and catastrophic severity.”

“We’re literally starting from scratch,” Trump said Friday in a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers. He said the hurricane had damaged roads and sewage systems and knocked out the electric power grid. “Nobody has ever seen anything like it.”

A week after Maria slammed into the bankrupt U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Ricans continued to endure sweaty, dark nights with a resolution to the near-total power outage nowhere in sight. Mobile-phone coverage improved gradually, but many residents still had no way of reaching loved ones outside their communities, and rural areas still had impassable roads.

Trump is scheduled to visit the island on Tuesday.

The administration has come under criticism from some Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said Thursday that the White House hasn’t grasped the significance of the damage in Puerto Rico compared with recent hurricane damage in his state and Texas. Thirty-seven Democrats and one independent in the Senate signed a letter urging Trump to take steps including a broader disaster declaration, a White House coordinator for rebuilding and increased assistance to restore electricity.

Rebuilding Effort

The president said Puerto Rico, which already faced a $74 billion mountain of debt and a shrinking economy, will need a costly recovery. The territorial government will have to work with federal authorities to determine “how this massive rebuilding effort -- it will be one of the biggest ever -- will be funded and organized, and what we’ll do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island.”

The situation is dire for the most vulnerable: Dialysis and cancer patients needing radiation faced countless obstacles to get essential treatments, as some clinics and nursing homes went without generator fuel and bottlenecks formed at the main hospitals. The emergency room was reportedly packed at the main public hospital, Centro Medico de Rio Piedras.

“People will die if they don’t get these treatments,” said Maria Ivelise Martinez Colon, a dermatologist who works at Clinica Las Americas in the Hato Rey section of San Juan, referring to radiation patients there. She said the clinics closed without power, overwhelming the limited number of facilities that are operational.

Send Fuel

Carlos Martel-Fernandez heard on the radio that Trump was coming. It didn’t mean much to him.

“We don’t need him. We need fuel,” Martel-Fernandez said as he inched along in a line to fill up his two red gas tanks. “If he’s going to make a mess here, then stay home. We don’t need the traffic. We have enough of our own.”

While Puerto Rican officials have publicly lauded the administration’s response, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz blasted acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke for telling reporters at the White House that the relief efforts were “a good-news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place.”

In an interview on CNN, Cruz called Duke’s remarks “irresponsible.”

“This is a people-are-dying story,” Cruz said. “This is a story of devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food or water.”

She added that Federal Emergency Management Agency and other officials “have their heart in the right place” and have people to assist with distributing supplies and getting to areas hardest hit.

White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said Thursday that 10,000 federal personnel, including from the military, are on the island. Duke is traveling there Friday.

Drivers Wanted

Trump said the island’s police and truckers are “very substantially gone” taking care of their own families and that the federal government has had to bring in drivers, security and other personnel.

Florida Governor Rick Scott, who is lending aid to Puerto Rico’s government after Hurricane Irma struck his state less severely than expected, said the territory’s biggest problem is ground transportation.

“We need more truck drivers and we need more trucks” to get goods out of ports, he said at the White House, where he had lunch with Trump on Friday.

He said the territorial government also is “asking for a lot of police resources,” and Florida will dispatch Spanish-speaking officers from its forces. Puerto Rican college students will also be offered in-state tuition at Florida colleges, and he’s examining how the state can assist Puerto Rican grade-school students, he said.

“This is not a time for politics, this is a time to help people,” Scott said.

Bossert said the administration will ask Congress in the next two to four weeks for additional funding on top of an existing $7.1 billion appropriation to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that becomes available on Oct. 1. That money covers initial request for the hurricanes that hit Texas, Louisiana and Florida as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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