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Extreme weather

Trump’s delayed response to hurricane-hit Puerto Rico whips up wave of criticism

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 1:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 11:19pm

It took US President Donald Trump five days to respond to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria on the lives of 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico, and when he finally did, critics said his comments on Twitter were devoid of empathy.

With federal aid only trickling in and the island still completely blacked out, many Puerto Ricans have already started their own clean-up operations, with some small shops and restaurants reopening with the help of generators.

But there are still long lines at supermarkets and service stations – with fuel, water and ice all rationed.

Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Monday he feared a “humanitarian crisis” on the island if Washington does not take “swift action” to help the US territory.

“We need to prevent a humanitarian crisis occurring in America. Puerto Rico is part of the United States. We need to take swift action,” Rossello said at a press conference in the capital San Juan, warning there could be an exodus from the island.

After facing blistering criticism for focusing much of his attention in recent days on a bitter feud with NFL players instead of the ravaged US territory, Trump launched another provocation on Monday night with a belated response to the Puerto Rican disaster. In a series of tweets he effectively blamed the islanders for their own misfortune and acknowledged that Puerto Rico was “in deep trouble”.

Chaos reigns in Puerto Rico, still blacked out after five days

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he tweeted.

“It’s old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well. #FEMA.”

Hurricanes Maria and Irma killed 13 people on the island – with Maria almost completely destroying telecommunication networks when it struck last Wednesday.

The White House denied it had been slower to act in overwhelmingly Hispanic Puerto Rico than in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey on the US mainland.

“We’ve done unprecedented movement in terms of federal funding to provide for the people of Puerto Rico and others that have been impacted [by] these storms,” said spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “We’ll continue to do so and continue to do everything that we possibly can under the federal government to provide assistance.”

Most Puerto Ricans were spared the experience of reading Trump’s tweets as a result of the ongoing total blackout on the island. But condemnation was swift in mainland US.

Juliette Kayyem, a former senior official in the department of homeland security under Barack Obama, said Trump’s response to the Puerto Rico disaster showed “a lack of empathy of epic proportions”.

Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, condemned the Trump administration’s response as “wholly inadequate”.

“A territory of 3.5 million American citizens is almost completely without power, water, food and telephone service, and we have a handful of helicopters involved in DOD’s response. It’s a disgrace,” he said.

Returning from a trip to the island, Florida Senator Marco Rubio warned: “Tremendous damage. Potential for serious crisis in areas outside #SanJuan MUST get power crews in ASAP.”

But engineers say it could take months for power to be fully restored.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Trump travelled to the state twice in a week.

He also travelled to Florida after Irma, handed out sandwiches and stressed that restoring electricity was a priority.

Trump spoke to Rossello and the governor of the US Virgin Islands by phone over the weekend and vowed to visit both places. He is expected to go to Puerto Rico on October 3.

Additional reporting by The Guardian