Trump’s acting homeland security secretary, Elaine Duke surveyed the Puerto Rican landscape by helicopter during a visit Friday. She also drove past still-flooded streets, twisted billboards and roofs with gaping holes, and offered encouragement to some of the emergency personnel the U.S. government has on the ground.
Duke also tried to move on from the remarks she made Thursday in which she called the federal relief effort a “good-news story.” On that front, she ran into winds as fierce as Maria.
“We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency,” Cruz said at a news conference. “I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us, to save us from dying.”
Trump, from his golf club in New Jersey, took to Twitter to accuse Cruz of partisan politics.
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” the president charged, without substantiation.
Thousands more Puerto Ricans have received water and rationed food as an aid bottleneck has begun to ease. By now, telecommunications are back for about 30 percent of the island, nearly half of the supermarkets have reopened at least for reduced hours and about 60 percent of the gas stations are pumping. But many remain desperate for necessities, most urgently water, long after the Sept. 20 hurricane.
Trump said Friday that Puerto Rico is “totally unable” to handle the catastrophe on its own. “They are working so hard, but there’s nothing left,” he said. “It’s been wiped out.” He said the government is “fully engaged in the disaster and the response and recovery effort.”
Trump said he was not aware of Duke’s “good-news” remark.
“I haven’t heard what she said,” he told reporters. “I can tell you this: We have done an incredible job considering there’s absolutely nothing to work with.”
Yet even in voicing solidarity and sympathy with Puerto Rico, he drew attention again to the island’s debt burden and infrastructure woes, leaving doubt about how far Washington will go to make the U.S. territory whole.
“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort — it will end up being one of the biggest ever — will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” he said. “We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe.”
During this season’s trio of monster hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Maria — Trump and his administration have drifted into the perilous territory of premature self-congratulation in the face of unfolding catastrophe, seemingly unmindful of the “Brownie moment” that scarred George W. Bush’s presidency.
Bush famously told his emergency management director, Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” during what proved to be a tragically inept federal response to deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Trump has repeatedly boasted about the positive reviews he said his administration is getting from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for its relief effort, even as people in remote towns struggle to find food, water and other basics. Then Duke said before leaving Washington that the federal relief effort was a “good-news story” because of “our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths.”
“Let me clarify,” she said Friday upon her arrival in San Juan. She said she meant “it was good news that people of Puerto Rico and many public servants of the United States are working together.”
Cruz responded, “This is a people-are-dying story.”
Trump is expected to survey the damage Tuesday.