Natural disasters

President Trump blasts San Juan mayor on Twitter for criticising US disaster response to Hurricane Maria

Millions on the US territory remain without power and clean water nine days after Hurricane Maria

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 10:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 10:42pm

President Donald Trump, under mounting criticism for the federal response to hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico, shifted from defending his administration’s approach to lashing out at the San Juan mayor for her “poor leadership ability”.

The president, in a series of tweets on Saturday morning, said Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, “who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump”.

“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Trump wrote. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

Trump went on to say that there are “10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job” and an “amazing job”.

Trump a day earlier defended his administration’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria amid rising criticism on the island and in Congress that more resources are needed to help residents cope with life-threatening conditions.

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.”

Trump, speaking to reporters as he left the White House for a weekend trip to his golf club in New Jersey, said he was not aware of the remarks by Duke or the mayor but that Puerto Rico’s governor has been “unbelievably generous” in his praise for federal efforts.

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

“I can tell you this: We have done an incredible job considering there’s absolutely nothing to work with,” Trump, who’s expected to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday, said.

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

The administration has come under criticism from some Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said on 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 in Texas.

Thirty-seven Democrats and one independent in the Senate signed a letter urging Trump to take steps including issuing a broader disaster declaration, naming a White House coordinator for rebuilding, and providing for more help to restore electricity. New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who was touring the island on Friday, said on Twitter: “it feels like the hurricane just hit yesterday. This federal response needs to double or triple right now.”

In a speech on Friday to the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, the president said recovery in Puerto Rico, which already faced a US$74 billion mountain of debt and a shrinking economy, will be costly.

“We’re literally starting from scratch,” Trump said, adding that the hurricane had damaged roads and sewage systems and knocked out the electric power grid. “Nobody has ever seen anything like it.”

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 organised, and what we’ll do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” he said.

White House Homeland Security Adviser Thomas Bossert said the administration will ask Congress in the next two to four weeks for additional funding on top of an existing US$7.1 billion appropriation to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that becomes available on October 1. That money covers initial requests for the hurricanes that hit Texas, Louisiana and Florida, as well as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

The San Juan mayor said while she was angry over Duke’s characterisation of the situation, the working relationship with the federal officials on the ground was good.

“They do get the dire situation,” she said on CNN.

“The intentions are there ... We just need to find a way around the logistics.”

Duke, who took an aerial tour of the island Friday and met with first responders and others labouring in the recovery effort, said in a statement that she and Trump “will not be fully satisfied, however, until every Puerto Rican is back home, the power is back on, clean water is fully available, schools and hospitals are fully open, and the Puerto Rican economy is working.

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 transport.

“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 tuition at Florida colleges, and he’s examining how the state can assist Puerto Rican students in primary and high schools, he said.

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

Construction worker Carlos Martel-Fernandez found out on the radio that Trump was coming, but it did not mean much to him.

“We don’t need him. We need fuel,” Martel-Fernandez said as he inched a bit closer in the line waiting 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.”

Natalia de Jesus had spent the week since Maria dealing with landslides near her partner’s house in Naranjito and had heard too many broken promises of help coming. She also heard Trump would be landing in Puerto Rico in a few days.

“The truth is I don’t think he can do anything,” she said.