Visiting Puerto Rico on Tuesday — the first time since a devastating hurricane hit two weeks ago — President Trump downplayed the criticism leveled at his administration’s slow response to the island’s crisis, while emphasizing the cost of recovery.
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack — because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico,” Trump said in a press briefing. A beat later, he added, “And that’s fine, we’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Damage from Hurricane Maria will be extensive — according to Gerardo Portela Franco, executive director of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, the island could be looking at upwards of $60 billion in repairs following the storm. That’s a staggering amount of money, especially for debt-ridden Puerto Rico. The island has been embroiled in a financial crisis for years, one that came to a head in May when the territory filed for local government bankruptcy.
Now, the situation is worse than ever. With a high cost of living and per capita income lower than half that of the poorest mainland U.S. state, Mississippi, Puerto Ricans were already struggling under the weight of the island’s financial problems ahead of the hurricane; in the aftermath, residents have turned to the federal government, desperate for relief. While federal funds have been freed up for Puerto Rico and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is assisting recovery efforts, aid has been slow to come.
International aid organizations have voiced concern over the growing problem. On Monday, Oxfam America President Abby Maxman chided U.S. officials for the pace of relief efforts.
“Oxfam has monitored the response in Puerto Rico closely, and we are outraged at the slow and inadequate response the U.S. Government has mounted,” Maxman said. “Oxfam rarely responds to humanitarian emergencies in the [United States] and other wealthy countries, but as the situation in Puerto Rico worsens and the federal government’s response continues to falter, we have decided to step in.”
Puerto Ricans are angered by what they perceive as apathy from those on the mainland, something that Trump’s emphasis on budgeting has served to highlight. According to FEMA, 7 percent of the island had power restored as of Tuesday, with the goal of reaching 25 percent within a month. Full restoration could take months. It is unclear when island-wide access to drinking water will be restored.
The president’s missteps have also inflamed the issue. Trump initially declined to lift the Jones Act, a post-World War I era shipping policy forcing merchants to use U.S.-build ships only when delivering goods that has long choked Puerto Rico’s economy. The president ultimately suspended the policy following outcry from a number of observers who pointed out that the act was blocking emergency supplies from reaching the island in a timely manner.
Other requests have also proved contentious — the federal government reportedly denied a waiver request allowing storm victims to use food stamps at fast food chains, something New York Times reporter Frances Robles noted was a major issue.
“This is important, because most supermarkets are not taking food stamps because their systems are down,” Robles tweeted.
Even congressional efforts to provide funding have fallen short. House Republicans are seeking $1 billion in Medicaid funds for the island, but the money will seemingly be tied to a larger bill funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), something that presents additional complications. More general funding for hurricane relief is likely to be buried in a shared aid package also benefitting Texas and Florida, states suffering from the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, respectively.
“I expect there will be one combination package that will involve Harvey, Irma and Maria,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said Monday. “We’re joining arms with everyone affected by the hurricanes. I think that’s the right thing to do.”
While both Texas and Florida are in need of relief funds, some have noted that Puerto Ricans are facing a reality that is vastly different and increasingly dire.
“There seems to be a double standard for disaster relief: one for the mainland and one for Puerto Rico,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) noted. Blumenthal recommended $15 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, emphasizing the pressing needs of the island.
Tying Puerto Rico’s tragedy to those faced by the mainland seems to be a theme. Speaking on Tuesday, Trump compared Maria’s impact to that of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
“When you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this,” Trump said.
“And what is your death count right now?” the president added, cheering the reported death count of 16 people as a vast improvement over the more than 1,000 fatalities associated with Katrina.
Upon landing Tuesday afternoon, Trump met Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, whose high-profile back-and-forth with Trump over Puerto Rico’s ongoing crisis has drawn considerable attention. The president appeared to call the mayor an “ingrate” over the weekend after she criticized the slowness of the Trump administration’s response to the tragedy.
Despite voicing his concerns about the cost of Puerto Rico’s recovery on Tuesday, Trump also took a moment on Tuesday to praise himself for ordering “hundreds of millions of dollars worth” of new [F-35] airplanes for the Air Force.
“Amazing job,” Trump said.
Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens are still mostly without electricity or connection to the mainland. Around half the island is also cut off from easy access to potable water, with many Puerto Ricans also lacking adequate medical treatment.