This article titled “Puerto Rico: Trump appears to complain about cost of relief effort” was written by Amanda Holpuch in New York and Oliver Laughland in San Juan, for The Guardian on Wednesday 4th October 2017 10.37 UTC
Donald Trump has heaped praise on his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, said Puerto Rico’s leaders should be “very proud” of the low official death toll – and appeared to complain at the cost of the recovery effort.
The US president’s remarks came on his first visit to the US territory since it was pummeled by a category 4 hurricane nearly two weeks ago, amid continuing criticism that his government has failed to adequately respond to the crisis.
The island’s 3.4 million residents – particularly those in the more isolated parts – are still largely without electricity, communications and access to clean drinking water and food.
But Trump told reporters: “It’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done.”
Speaking at a briefing shortly after his arrival, Trump told local officials: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.
“But that’s fine because we’ve saved a lot of lives.”
The president contrasted Puerto Rico’s relatively low official death toll with that caused by Hurricane Katrina, which he described as a “real catastrophe”.
Turning to Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, he asked how many people had died in the storm.
“Sixteen,” the governor replied.
“Sixteen versus literally thousands of people,” Trump said. “You can be very proud. Everybody around this table, and everybody watching, can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”
On Tuesday night, Rosselló said the official death count had risen to 34 from 16. Last week, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, a local investigative journalism project, calculated that the real total was likely to be dozens or hundreds higher.
At the briefing with cabinet members, local politicians and other emergency responders, Trump singled out Rosselló for “giving us the highest praise”.
But the US president also faced his most prominent local critic, San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who he attacked at the weekend as a “politically motivated ingrate” after she made an impassioned plea for more help from the federal government.
The two politicians shook hands and exchanged pleasantries at the airport hangar before the briefing, but Cruz later described the meeting as a “public relations situation” that did not deal with the island’s problems.
“We tend to judge human crises by the number of people who die instantly,” she told CNN. “So of course when you say Katrina there were thousands, that doesn’t convey the message that people are dying on a continuum because they don’t have dialysis, they don’t have healthcare, they’re drinking out of creeks.”
Cruz said that a second meeting with White House staff was more productive than the gathering hosted by the president. “Sometimes his style of communication gets in the way,” she said.
In Washington, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said: “I don’t remember the president telling Texas that they threw our budget out of whack after [Hurricane] Harvey. Or Florida after Irma.”
“Yes, we’re spending money in Puerto Rico. We’re spending money to turn the power back on. To give people drinking water. And to keep life support machines working in the hospitals.”
Oxfam America also made a rare criticism of the US government on Tuesday over its response to the catastrophe.
“We’re hearing excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response,” said Oxfam America’s president, Abby Maxman, in a statement. “The US has more than enough resources to mobilize an emergency response but has failed to do so in a swift and robust manner.”
After the briefing, Trump and his wife Melania drove to the town of Guaynabo to meet survivors of the hurricane. On the way, their motorcade passed trees stripped of their leaves, streets still strewn with debris – and at least one protester: a woman standing by the road, holding a hand-lettered sign reading: “You are a bad hombre.”
Trump visited a chapel that was serving as a distribution center for food and supplies, where he handed out bags of rice, then threw rolls of paper towels into the crowd of local residents.
Basic necessities such as food and water remain scarce, and Rosselló warned that without an effective recovery plan, the disaster could cause millions of Puerto Ricans to move to the US mainland.
Such an exodus would create “a devastating demographic shift” for the island, he told reporters.
In downtown San Juan, residents continued to clear the debris from their homes and businesses.
Jesús Ramírez, 53, was still moving rubble from his collapsed roof. “He [Trump] has to help us because if he doesn’t the rest of the island will leave.”
Ramírez said five members of his family had already left Puerto Rico for New York but he was determined to stay and see if he could salvage his business, which remained without power and was still severely damaged by flooding in the kitchen.
Those who stay face potentially months without electricity, as well as food, fuel, water and gas shortages. As of Tuesday morning, 55% of the island was without running water, and 26% of gas stations were still closed, according to Puerto Rico’s government. There is no clear indication of when full cellphone service will be restored to the entire island.
Roy Geren, who lives about 20 miles inland from San Juan, said many of his neighbours had lost everything in the hurricane.
“Their houses were made of wood, they are all gone – only the bathrooms are left,” he said, adding his home had been flooded with two feet of mud and was now without power and electricity.
The 41-year-old said Trump should have visited regions outside of the island’s capital to get a full picture of the devastation.
“Here in San Juan it is nice,” he said. “He shouldn’t have gone to the tourist areas.”
“Up there,” he said, pointing inland. “That’s where he should have visited.”
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