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Trump defends federal response in Puerto Rico as criticism mounts
October 1, 2017 / 4:04 PM / 19 days ago

Trump defends federal response in Puerto Rico as criticism mounts

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Oct 1 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday his government was doing a “great job” to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria and took a new swipe at critics who said he had been slow to aid the island, whose power grid was destroyed 12 days ago.

The Republican president has intensified his praise of federal response efforts in the U.S. territory after the mayor of the capital rebuked the efforts and American media continued to broadcast images of the havoc and suffering on the island.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who lost her house in the storm and has been attacked by Trump on Twitter, said on Sunday she would be willing to meet with him when he visits the island on Tuesday. “If he asks to meet with me, of course I will meet him.”

Maria pummeled Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 on the heels of an earlier hurricane, with roof-ripping winds and torrential rains that caused widespread flooding and heavily damaged homes, roads and other infrastructure. About half of the island’s 3.4 million people do not have access to drinking water, and 95 percent remain without power, according to the Pentagon.

Impassable roads have made it hard for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others to distribute food, water and fuel.

Carmen Miranda, 60, of Luquillo, is among those who has faced long lines for gasoline, medicine and supplies. She spent 13 hours one day trying to buy fuel at a station that ran dry and was in line on Saturday at a store that ran out of diesel.

“I‘m going to have to come back another day,” she said. “It’s just horrible, those lines. That needs to be resolved immediately. President Trump, anyone, help us,” she said.

At a press briefing in San Juan, the capital, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello reported some progress in getting to people who needed help but acknowledged that problems remained. “We still need to do much more,” he said.

Trump, however, lashed out again at San Juan’s mayor in a pair of Twitter posts.

“We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically-motivated ingrates,” he said. “People are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military.”

The Trump administration has been on the defensive since Friday when Cruz pounded the acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke over her comment that the federal response in Puerto Rico was “a good news story.”

Trump accused the mayor of acting on behalf of Democrats. On Sunday, his representatives fanned out over the morning television news shows to chastize the tenacious Cruz.

FEMA director Brock Long admonished her for not being in closer contact with relief coordinators.

“The problem is, if you’re not connected into that joint field office, then you don’t understand commanders’ intent,” he told ABC. “You don’t understand the successes of what has been done versus what needs to be done, where the gaps are.”

Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin both said on Sunday that Cruz’s criticism was unfair. Mulvaney said he hoped the mayor would get on the team “as we all pull the same direction.”

Cruz, who has been living in a shelter, pressed on with her appeal for basic necessities as insurers and politicians began to tally the costs of the storm and the size of the aid package Puerto Rico will need.

“Let us not talk about the debt, let us not talk about the cost of reconstruction. Let us just talk about saving lives right now,” Cruz said on Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program.

POLITICAL BICKERING

Trump has alluded to the island’s financial problems several times since Maria hit. Puerto Rico filed the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. municipal history this year and is struggling to regain economic stability in the face of a $72 billion debt load and near-insolvent public health and pension systems.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, urged an end to the political fingerpointing.

“Every minute we spend in the political realm bickering with one another over who’s doing what, or who’s wrong, or who didn’t do right is a minute of energy and time that we’re not spending trying to get the response right,” Rubio said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program.

The insurance industry has begun to tally the damage from Maria, with one modeling company estimating that claims could reach $85 billion.

Trump was accused last weekend of giving short-shrift to Puerto Rico’s recovery while focusing on the National Football League players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem at games. He issued his latest attack on San Juan’s mayor from the New Jersey golf resort where he spent the weekend.

The creator of Broadway hit “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico, took Trump to task on Twitter over his attack on Cruz: “She has been working 24/7. You have been GOLFING. You’re going straight to hell.”

Conservative commentator Eric Erickson said he had planned to defend the Puerto Rico recovery efforts until the president attacked Cruz: “Yay, President Trump punched a critic — a critic who is on an island trying her best to help others where most of the people now have no homes, no power, and no running water. What a man he is!” he wrote on Saturday. (Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Julia Harte; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Paul Simao)

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