Puerto Ricans say mainland U.S. efforts are failing them in the wake of a devastating hurricane — contradicting comments from President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly emphasized the aid being successfully provided.
“It is really a good news story, in terms of our ability to reach people,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke told reporters Thursday, speaking about relief efforts on the island, which is home to 3.4 million U.S. citizens without full voting rights.
Facing outcry and growing backlash for Trump’s handling of the crisis — after days of silence (which he spent tweeting about the National Football League), Trump addressed the issue by blaming the island for its misfortunes — the administration is now attempting to counter the narrative.
On Thursday, the Pentagon named Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan to oversee relief efforts on the island. Trump also announced he would temporarily suspend the Jones Act, a post-World War I shipping policy that has long hindered Puerto Rico’s economy. Meanwhile, Trump took to Twitter to emphasize mainland response efforts.
“FEMA & First Responders are doing a GREAT job in Puerto Rico,” Trump wrote on Thursday. “Massive food & water delivered. Docks & electric grid dead. Locals trying really hard to help but many have lost their homes. Military is now on site and I will be there Tuesday. Wish press would treat fairly!”
“Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello just stated: “The Administration and the President, every time we’ve spoken, they’ve delivered,[“]” Trump wrote on Friday.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello just stated: "The Administration and the President, every time we've spoken, they've delivered……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2017
…The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2017
But Puerto Rican officials and residents are pushing back on these characterizations from the Trump administration. Many are furious at the mainland’s slow response, as well as by U.S. officials’ perceived apathy to the current situation.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz slammed Duke’s comment that the storm was a “good news story” as particularly “irresponsible” in the face of tragedy. “I’m sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me,” Cruz said during a CNN appearance on Friday. “Frankly, it’s an irresponsible statement.”
“Damn it, this is not a ‘good’ news story,” she continued. “This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a life or death story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.”
"Dammit, this is not a good news story": San Juan mayor slams acting DHS Secretary Duke's comments about Puerto Rico https://t.co/Lx5pOp6iFs
— Joshua Chavers (@JoshuaChavers) September 29, 2017
“I have not seen any federal help around here,” Javier San Miguel told the Associated Press. Mari Olivo told the publication the same thing. “I have not received any help, and we ran out of food yesterday,” she said.
“The federal response has been a disaster,” said lawmaker Jose Enrique Melendez, a member of the governor’s party. “It’s been really slow.”
Puerto Ricans themselves describe a reality far different from the one painted by the White House. The entire island, already debt-ridden and struggling, has been in a full-blown crisis since Hurricane Maria struck last week, killing at least 16 people and leaving most of Puerto Rico without power. Residents are stranded across the island, unable to reach family members due a lack of cellular reception and, in many cases, unable to fly to the mainland with airline prices skyrocketing.
Worsening the disaster is a water shortage, with approximately half of the island unable to access potable water. Many are also unable to find fuel, something reflected by footage uploaded to social media.
— Jason Morris (@JMOCNN) September 29, 2017
Hospitals have also been hard hit. Puerto Rico has an incredibly high rate of kidney failure, with many residents requiring dialysis, something a lack of power has hindered. Conjunctivitis (better known as “pinkeye”) has also become a problem, with numerous islanders suffering from poor hygiene in the storm’s aftermath. Dengue is spreading, along with complications from sexually transmitted diseases. Earlier in the week the situation was already becoming untenable, according to Domingo Cruz Vivaldi, the executive director of San Jorge Children’s Hospital in San Juan.
“We are dealing with a crisis right now,” Vivaldi told CNN on Tuesday. “The hospital is needing diesel every day — 2,000 gallons a day. Yesterday, we ran out of diesel at 6 a.m. and we were without electricity at the hospital from 6 a.m. through 2 p.m. Eight hours without electricity.”
As days have passed, things have worsened, one hospital executive told the Washington Post. “I don’t have the space for more people,” he said. “I am very worried, not for the ones that are here. I’m worried about the ones that are not.”
With aid efforts finally ramping up, federal officials are acknowledging that the process will be a long one and that more help will be needed.
“Well, we’re certainly bringing in more [help],” Buchanan, the general overseeing relief efforts, told CNN. “For example, on the military side, we’re bringing in both air force, navy, and army medical capabilities in addition to aircraft, more helicopters .., (but) it’s not enough, and we’re bringing more in.”
Some still haven’t given up hope on the White House. Cruz made an appeal to Trump on Friday, begging for more assistance.
“Let’s get it done,” she pleaded. “Let’s put a crew of people out there with enough equipment and let’s just push things out of the way and move. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Isn’t that the American way of doing things?”
But in comments made Friday morning, Trump continued to praise his administration’s response to the devastation.
“I believe we’re doing better this month,” the president said, going on to bemoan the cost of hurricanes stretching from the Caribbean to the mainland. “Unfortunately having the hurricanes hitting Texas and Florida and Louisiana and obviously other locations and especially where we are right now with the kind of money we’re spending on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it’s going to be a little bit of a hit,” he said.
“But we’re doing extremely well,” he emphasized, “even this quarter, despite the hurricanes.”