Trying to counter criticism of almost two weeks of inaction over devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Marie, Donald Trump has explained, “This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.”
More than 3 million Puerto Ricans have faced power outages and shortages of food, fuel, and basic necessities with few relief supplies reaching the island. Congress finally acted on Thursday, waiving the Jones Act to allow foreign shipping to bring aid into ports, but distribution outside the capital San Juan is still limited.
Seeking to explain how he has coped with the challenge, Trump insisted, “We’ve undertaken a massive federal mobilization to assist Puerto Rico.”
He then explained, “The response and recovery effort probably has never been seen for something like this. This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.”
Trump continued by repeating his tweet earlier this week — after days of silence after the hurricane struck — that he had to cope with poor infrastructure on Puerto Rice: “The electrical grid and other infrastructure were already in very, very poor shape, they were at their life’s end prior to the hurricanes, and now virtually everything has been wiped out. We’re literally starting from scratch.”
He said the Federal Government would work with Puerto Rico to figure out how to fund the rebuilding effort and “what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island”.
But Trump later told reporters that “as you know, it’s going really well” with the recovery effort.
San Juan Mayor Hits Back at White House: “Not a Good News Story”
But San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz reacted with shock and anger to the Trump Administration’s “really well” declarations.
Cruz responded on Friday to a statement the previous day by Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, “I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.”
The mayor said, “This is a ‘people are dying’ story.”
Well maybe from where she’s standing it’s a good news story. When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from buildings — I’m sorry, that really upsets me and frustrates me.
I would ask you [Duke] to come down here and visit the towns and then make a statement like that, because frankly, it is an irresponsible statement in contrast with the statements of support that I have been getting yesterday when I got that call from the White House.
Damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. It’s a life-or-death story.
Representative Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, who has relatives in Puerto Rico and is in San Juan, also responded to the Trump line in an emotional TV interview:
The reality on the ground is the one that your reporters are telling the American people. They’re handing out maybe a bottle of water and one meal to a family of five or six. In some towns, not even that.
I think it isn’t a good job. It is a disgraceful job.
Gutiérrez addressed Trump:
The United States of America is the most powerful, wealthiest country in the world. This is not a response that is demonstrative of our power, our wealth, and I’m tired of the president always talking about how much it’s going to cost.”
It’s costing lives, Mr. President, of children, of the elderly, of the infirmed. And we should begin an operation also to evacuate people from this island, especially elderly, especially those that have sicknesses, until they can return to the island to rebuild it.
A relief official in San Juan described the situation:
We have to think of this as societal collapse: no power, no water, no food, no nothing.
We came in thinking this would be a traditional model of disaster response….It is up to us to keep everything moving. Civil society is pretty much gone, and we didn’t realize that until like 36 or 48 hours ago. And who knows when it’s going to end?