President Donald Trump suggested Thursday that Puerto Rico is going to have to shoulder more responsibility for recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria, saying the federal government’s emergency responders can’t stay there “forever.”
His comments — in which he also blamed the beleaguered island for a financial crisis “largely of their own making” and infrastructure that was a “disaster” before the hurricane — come as Puerto Rico still reels from a lack of electricity, public health access and a rising death toll. The remarks quickly prompted cries from Democratic lawmakers, who argue that Puerto Rico still needs a lot of help, as well as the mayor of San Juan, who said they were “unbecoming” and appeared to come from a “hater in chief.”
Meanwhile, Texas and Florida — two states Trump won during last year’s presidential election — also were struck by severe hurricanes recently, but the President has made no public indication that the federal government is pulling back on its response there.
The President wrote in two separate tweets, “‘Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.’ says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of……..accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend…”
He continued in a third tweet: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
Attkisson is a journalist who works for conservative Sinclair Broadcasting.
Trump’s tweets come three weeks after the hurricane first struck the island, which remains largely without power. The death toll from the storm has risen to 45, authorities have said, and at least 113 people remain unaccounted for, according to Karixia Ortiz, a spokeswoman for Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety.
The recovery has moved slowly since Maria struck the US territory on September 20, leaving most of the island without basic services such as power and running water, according to residents, relief workers and local elected officials. Hospitals throughout the cash-strapped island of 3.4 million people have been running low on medicine and fuel, and residents and local elected officials have said they expect the death toll to rise.
The water situation is so dire, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a news release Wednesday, that residents on the island have reportedly been trying to obtain water from Superfund sites — which are bodies of water contaminated by hazardous waste. The EPA advised against “tampering with sealed and locked wells or drinking from these wells, as it may be dangerous to people’s health.”
Administration officials sought to downplay Trump’s comments Thursday morning.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, testifying before the House financial services committee, said that he has “no intention” of abandoning recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
“They’re a very important part of who we are,” he said, later adding: “(Puerto Rico) should not be abandoned.”
And White House press secretary Sarah Sanders reaffirmed federal support to the island.
“Our job in any disaster affected location is to help the community respond and recover from that disaster. We continue to do so with the full force of the US government and its resources in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and other affected areas,” she said. “Successful recoveries do not last forever; they should be as swift as possible to help people resume their normal lives.”
Democrats, however, pounced on Trump’s tweets.
“Puerto Ricans are Americans, and we don’t abandon each other. The federal government should stay in Puerto Rico as long as necessary,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, tweeted.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Puerto Rico is still facing a humanitarian crisis. @realDonaldTrump seems more worried about blaming hurricane victims than helping them.”
And San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has feuded publicly with the President over the federal response, said on Twitter that Trump was incapable of fulfilling the moral imperative to help the people of PR. Shame on you.!”
However Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, who is a member of the House foreign affairs committee, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo Thursday there’s only “so much” the US can do to help Puerto Rico.
“I would then again say, ‘What is enough?’ What is the right amount to satisfy whoever says we’re not doing enough,” he said on “New Day.” “It’s regrettable and it’s sad for those people but there only is physically, humanly possible so much that any nation could do in the wake of devastation.”
He continued: “I lived through it myself, a victim of floods on numerous occasions, had to clean it up, and I will tell you, nobody came to help us, we handled it ourselves.”
House to vote on disaster relief
Acting Department of Homeland Security Elaine Duke will make her second trip to the island on Thursday.
House Speaker Paul Ryan will lead a bipartisan delegation visiting Puerto Rico on Friday, according to the speaker’s office.
Ryan will travel to the island with House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the panel. Puerto Rico’s sole representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, and House GOP Conference Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers also will be part of the congressional delegation.
The House will vote Thursday on a disaster relief bill following a series of devastating hurricanes and massive wildfires that have ravaged parts of the United States.
While the Trump administration requested $29 billion in supplemental spending last week, it asked for additional resources Tuesday night, including $4.9 billion to specifically to fund a loan program that Puerto Rico can use to address basic functions like infrastructure needs.
The bill stood at $36.5 billion as of Wednesday afternoon.