Trump, Donald J

Trump Warns Puerto Rico Weeks After Storms: Federal Help Cannot Stay ‘Forever’

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“Tweet away your hate to mask your administration’s mishandling of this humanitarian crisis,” she said, addressing the president. “While you are amusing yourself throwing paper towels at us, your compatriots and the world are sending love and help our way. Condemn us to a slow death of nondrinkable water, lack of food, lack of medicine while you keep others eager to help from reaching us.”

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was more restrained as he has been through previous rounds of criticism by Mr. Trump. After the tweets on Thursday morning, he called the White House and said he received assurances that the president fully supported recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

“I reiterate my plea that, as U.S. citizens, we are not asking for better treatment or less treatment,” Mr. Rosselló said. “We are asking for equal treatment. We’re not asking for anything that another U.S. jurisdiction, having passed through the same situation, wouldn’t be asking at this juncture.”

Puerto Rico was already facing deep financial troubles before Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept across the island, knocking out many basic services. Three weeks after Maria hit, 83 percent of the island was still without power, 36 percent had no running water and 45 percent was without telecommunication services.

While some sort of normalcy has been restored in San Juan, residents of the more isolated interior municipalities were still struggling with a precarious health situation and problems with aid distribution. Although 86 percent of supermarkets are now open, the government could not ensure that they were fully stocked with food and water.

Despite Mr. Trump’s tweets, administration officials said the federal government would be helping Puerto Rico recover from storm damage for years. The Federal Emergency Management Agency posted its own message on Twitter: “.@FEMA will be w/Puerto Rico, USVI, every state, territory impacted by a disaster every day, supporting throughout their response & recovery.”

Other agencies were committed to long-term efforts as well. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is helping rebuild the electrical grid badly damaged by the storm, a construction effort that could take years. In addition, other agencies helping in recovery efforts, like the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, have a permanent presence on the island and are unlikely to go anywhere.

As for Mr. Trump’s assertion that he could not keep “first responders” on the island forever, one official called it nonsense. Such responders include police officers, firefighters and paramedics from localities around the United States who are not under the control of the president.

While search and rescue operations and storm-related deaths are becoming less common, the situation on much of the island remained precarious. Hospitals are operating on generator power, which is expensive and unreliable. And major roadways have been cleared of debris, opening access to cities, but many Puerto Ricans are still relying on FEMA to provide food and water, which are being delivered to neighborhoods by local governments.

Even those who have gone back to work are expending an unsustainable level of resources to function. Without running water or electricity in their homes, those who can afford it are relying on generators, which are expensive to fuel, to light their homes and keep food cold, buying batteries to power fans and drinking bottled water exclusively.


Filling water jugs from a mountain drain outside San Juan, the capital, this week. A portion of the island still lacks running water. Credit Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On a helicopter trip Thursday morning to Cidra, a small city an hour south of San Juan, the devastated landscape was speckled with homes that were still without roofs, and were covered with tarps. Almost every street was lined with huge piles of tree branches and other debris beginning to rot and stink.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who is leading the United States military effort in Puerto Rico, said that conditions were only somewhat improved since he arrived two weeks ago. “It’s still complete devastation across the island,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time to fix.”

Responding to Mr. Trump’s tweets this morning that the military could not stay in Puerto Rico forever, he said, “That’s true. We don’t do recovery, we do emergency response.”

“Right now we’re still in the emergency response, so it is necessary,” he said.

He said that he had not experienced pressure from military leadership to start pulling troops off the island. “Not at all, none whatsoever,” he said. “I’ve gotten everything I’ve asked for.”

Mr. Trump has alternately praised the federal response and expressed frustration that so much has been required. Unlike after hurricanes struck Texas and Florida, he has complained that Puerto Rico was ruining the federal budget.

Puerto Rico, which was struggling with a debt crisis before the storms hit, may run out of money by the end of the month, and Mr. Trump asked Congress on Tuesday for a $4.9 billion loan to help pay its most pressing obligations amid warnings that it would not be able to pay teachers and health care providers. That comes after Mr. Trump already requested $29 billion for storm recovery efforts.

The House planned to take up disaster aid on Thursday, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan was set to travel on Friday to Puerto Rico with a bipartisan delegation for a firsthand assessment of the damage. “We need to stand with the people of Puerto Rico as they work to rebuild their communities,” Mr. Ryan told reporters.

The president’s expression of impatience with the length of the recovery effort after just three weeks stood in contrast to the federal investment after prior storms. A former official in the George W. Bush administration noted that the federal government kept at least some military in New Orleans for nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and that the government took more than five years for recovery efforts over all.

“It’s fairly typical for FEMA, D.H.S. and other executive agencies to be on the ground running recovery operations for years to come,” said James Norton, the former official, who worked at the Department of Homeland Security under Mr. Bush. “I would expect them to be operating in Texas and Florida for the next couple of years.”

Puerto Rico’s financial crisis has been decades in the making, resulting in $74 billion in public debt. Earlier this year, the government of Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy-like protection in federal court to stave off creditors, including mutual funds and hedge funds. The island got into its current mess after bad fiscal management in which it issued bonds to finance day-to-day operations when tax receipts could not cover the costs.

The situation got worse after Congress, about a decade ago, decided to phase out some of the tax exemptions that had made Puerto Rico a favorable location for some pharmaceutical companies and other businesses to set up shop. The move prompted some business to leave the island, resulting in lower tax revenues and many residents moving to the mainland United States for jobs.

Puerto Rico’s economy has been in a recession for about a decade and the poverty rate on the island is about 45 percent. The devastation caused by Maria will make it even more difficult for the economy to recover as some are estimating hundreds of thousands more residents can leave Puerto Rico if electricity is not restored soon.

And while many of the luxury resorts in the San Juan area are expected to be fully operational by year’s end, there is growing concern about whether tourists will flock to the island at a time when so many are living in desperate straights. Tourism supports about 65,000 jobs in Puerto Rico.

Mr. Trump’s tweets left his advisers in the awkward position of trying to explain what he meant or distancing themselves from his apparent meaning. At a House hearing on Thursday, Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, seemed deeply uncomfortable under questioning from Representative Maxine Waters of California, a Democrat who pressed him on whether he agreed with the president.

“So you don’t agree that it should be abandoned, is that right?” she asked.

“Of course it should not be abandoned,” he replied.

“Should they be shamed for its own plight?” she asked.

“I don’t think it is beneficial to go around shaming people in general,” he said.

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John Hudgens

John lives in San Francisco, California and writes about politics and technology with his spare time. For his day job he builds backend applications for websites.

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