WASHINGTON DC, USA (3rd UPDATE) – US President Donald Trump spoke by phone with senior officials in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico late Saturday, September 30, hours after lashing out at the mayor of San Juan who had pleaded for help and criticized the slow federal response.
While much of the US territory of 3.4 million remained without power, fresh water, or communications links long after the catastrophic passage of Hurricane Maria, reports continued to filter in of battered towns across the island that have yet to receive any aid.
Enormous, hours-long queues grew at San Juan gas stations – some patrolled by private security guards – while desperate residents in the interior said reporters were the first outsiders they had seen. "There's been no help from FEMA nor from the federal government nor from anyone," said Elisa Gonzalez, 49.
But Trump insisted Saturday that federal emergency response teams and the US military, which has sent dozens of ships and some 10,000 troops, were doing a "fantastic" job.
Criticized for focusing more on protests by professional football players than on the disaster in the Caribbean, the White House said the president spoke late Saturday by phone with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, former governor Luis Fortuno, and Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, who represents the island in Congress but has no voting power.
Trump also spoke with Kenneth Mapp, the governor of the US Virgin Islands – also hard-hit by Hurricane Maria – and Federal Emergency Management Administrator head Brock Long, who briefed him "on the progress of current response and recovery operations and provided details about the situation on the ground."
In his tweets Trump attempted to blame the island's continuing woes on Democrats, the media, and local officials.
After San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz complained in impassioned remarks that "we are dying here, and I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island," Trump unleashed a Twitter rant.
"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," he wrote.
"Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.
"They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job."
Puerto Ricans are US citizens but due to the territory's status do not vote in presidential elections and have no real voice in Congress.
Trump's earlier comments questioning who would pay for reconstruction given the territory's massive financial debt were viewed by some as premature and distasteful.
The tweets drew a scorching response from the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Representative Bennie Thompson, who called them "abhorrent."
It was "pathetic that the president has decided to attack – with the not so subtle veil of racism and sexism – those desperately begging for his help," Thompson said.
Trump's suggestion that some Puerto Ricans did not want to work also appeared likely to stoke resentment at a time when many of the island's first responders, desperately working to keep their own families alive, have been unable to join in the larger relief effort.
Yulin Cruz on Saturday defended the remarks which Trump had described as mean.
"Actually, I was asking for help," she told MSNBC. "I wasn't saying anything nasty about the president."
"I will continue to do whatever I need to do, say whatever I need to say, compliment the people I need to compliment, and call out the people that I need to call out," she added.
"This isn't about me. This isn't about anyone. This is about lives that are being lost if things do not get done properly real quickly."
In a late afternoon Twitter blast about the government hurricane response effort, Trump said: "to the people of Puerto Rico: Do not believe the #FakeNews!"
Puerto Ricans have been angered by Trump's delay in waiving a US law that bars foreign-flagged ships from delivering aid to US ports. Though Trump had waived the law after hurricanes struck the mainland, he argued that "a lot of shippers" did not want the law waived again.
FEMA 'working extra hard'
Governor Rossello has been less critical of the federal effort than Mayor Cruz. In a briefing Saturday he pointed to efforts by FEMA to deliver fuel across the island, particularly to hospitals.
Authorities said in a conference call that power has been restored to only 5% of the island; telecommunications to 33%; and water to half of the island.
Bob Kadlec, a US health and human services assistant secretary, said he could not confirm reports of disease outbreaks caused by contaminated water sources, but added that "it would not be unusual."
Across the island, people continued to wait for clear signs of federal and local collaboration – for food, for potable water, for gas, for anything. Some were told it could be weeks, or months, before power is restored. – Rappler.com