Trump heads to Puerto Rico to survey hurricane damage after criticism of government response
US President Donald Trump will come face to face with Puerto Ricans struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria on Tuesday, amid criticism that the federal government’s response has been sluggish. Pushing back, Trump has faulted local officials as “politically motivated ingrates”.
The president is expected to spend more than five hours on the ground, meeting first responders, local officials and some of the 3.4 million people whose lives have been upended by a hurricane that, in the president’s words, left the island US territory “flattened”.
“There’s nothing left. It’s been wiped out,” Trump said last week. “Nobody has ever seen anything like it.”
The trip will be Trump’s fourth to a region battered by storms during an unusually violent hurricane season that has also seen parts of Texas, Florida, Louisiana and the US Virgin Islands inundated by floodwaters and whipped by winds.
Talking to reporters before he left, he said officials in Puerto Rico “have to give us more help” in responding to the devastation, a defiant response to criticism that federal recovery efforts have been sluggish.
Praised the federal response, telling reporters at the White House that “it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done”. But, he said at “a local level, they have to give us more help”.
“In Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it’s actually a much tougher situation,” he said.
His trip came nearly two weeks after the storm and after a weekend in which Trump aggressively dismissed critics, including San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. Trump responded angrily, deriding the “poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help” on Twitter.
“They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” he added, scoffing at “politically motivated ingrates” who had criticised the effort, and insisting that “tremendous progress” was being made.
Cruz has accused the administration of “killing us with the inefficiency” and begged the president to “make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives”.
Sanders said Cruz had been invited to participate in Tuesday’s events, but it was unclear whether she and the president would meet.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump are expected to attend briefings and meet Governor Ricardo Rossello, as well as the governor of the US Virgin Islands. They will also meet navy and Marine Corps personnel on the flight Deck of the USS Kearsarge.
Even before the storm hit on September 20, Puerto Rico was in dire condition thanks to a decade-long economic recession that had left its infrastructure, including the island’s power lines, in a sorry state. Maria was the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century and unleashed floods and mudslides that knocked out the island’s entire electrical grid and telecommunications, along with many roads.
Nearly two weeks later, 95 per cent of electricity customers are still without power, including some hospitals. Much of the countryside is still struggling to access basic necessities, including food, fresh water and cash.
Trump and other administration officials have worked in recent days to reassure Americans that recovery efforts are going well and combat the perception that the president failed to fully grasp the magnitude of the storm’s destruction in its immediate aftermath.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday the trip would focus on local recovery efforts, “which we’re fully committed to”.
“The top priority for the federal government is certainly to protect the lives and the safety of those in affected areas and provide life-sustaining services as we work together to rebuild their lives,” she said.
While early response efforts were hampered by logistical challenges, officials say that conditions, especially in the capital, have improved.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are now more than 10,000 federal officials on the ground on the island, and 45 per cent of customers now have access to drinking water.
Businesses are also beginning to reopen, with 60 per cent of retail service stations now up and running.
For many, however, that isn’t enough. On Monday, the charity Oxfam announced that it would be taking the rare step of intervening in an American disaster, citing its outrage over what it called a “slow and inadequate response”.