SAN JUAN – President Donald Trump said on Tuesday his administration was doing a “really good job” helping Puerto Rico recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria despite complaints that federal aid has been too slow to reach the U.S. territory.
Trump agreed to boost federal disaster aid to the island, increasing funding to assist with debris removal and emergency protective measures. He promised to visit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 3.
Critics and some of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents accused the U.S. government of having been slower to respond with water, food and electric grid repairs than on the mainland, even though the island’s people are U.S. citizens.
Maria roared ashore Sept. 20 as the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in almost 90 years, cutting all power and destroying homes and infrastructure. It was the third major hurricane to hit the United States in recent weeks, following Harvey in Texas and Irma in the Caribbean and Florida.
“We’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and in Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico,” Trump told reporters in Washington. “The difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean. And we’re doing a really good job.”
Trump visited Texas and Florida after Harvey and Irma, mindful that the last Republican president, George W. Bush, faced widespread criticism for his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,800 people in and around New Orleans in 2005.
Bush faced particular ire for saying, at a time when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was widely seen as having responded inadequately, that the then-FEMA head, Michael Brown, was doing a “heckuva job.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Trump’s assessment of the relief effort. He urged the Republican president to propose an aid package to Congress in the next day or two.
“With all due respect, President Trump, relief efforts are not ‘doing well,'” Schumer said.
FEMA said in a statement that 7 million meals and 4 million liters of water were on the way to the island by barge. The agency had previously shipped more than 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, almost 300 infant and toddler kits, 70,000 tarps, and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it said.
The U.S. government has also sent more than 300 medical staff to the islands and is working to reopen hospitals. More than 150 patients have been moved to the continental United States so far. Nine FEMA teams are conducting search-and-rescue operations on the islands.
Some cellphone communication had been restored to about 35 percent of the island, acting U.S. Homeland Secretary Elaine Duke said on Tuesday.
Many residents were still grappling to get basic essentials.
“We’ve not seen any help. Nobody’s been out asking what we need or that kind of thing,” said Maria Gonzalez, a 74-year-old great-grandmother in the capital San Juan’s Santurce district.
Yet help did appear to be reaching parts of the city, she said, pointing to Condado, a tourist area of bars and hotels powered by generators that have whirred while other San Juan streets fell into darkness at dusk.
“There’s plenty of electricity over there, but there’s nothing in the poor areas,” Gonzalez said.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz strongly criticized Trump for keeping the focus on the island’s $72 billion in debt, referring to tweets by Trump on Monday.
“You don’t put debt above people, you put people above debt,” she told CNN.
Puerto Rico, which has struggled for years economically, filed the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history this year. Its government asked a judge on Monday for up to four extra weeks to meet deadlines in its bankruptcy case.
In a series of Twitter posts on Monday, Trump said, “Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
Many structures on the island, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded, with clean drinking water hard to find in some areas. Few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.
Singer Marc Anthony, whose family is from Puerto Rico, joined the criticism of Trump, saying he should stop dwelling on a controversy involving National Football League players and the national anthem.
“Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico. We are American citizens too,” he tweeted.
Hurricane Maria-related donations through popular charity-rating website Charity Navigator reached $120,019 four days after the disaster was featured on the site versus $522,873 in donations raised for Harvey relief and $52,002 for Irma-related aid, according to data the website provided to Reuters.
Six days after the storm hit, officials were still taking stock of what was expected to be a months-long effort to rebuild the power system, meaning many people will be without electricity for an extended period.
Puerto Ricans resigned themselves to a long wait for basic services to return, but few doubted the U.S. government had the ability to bring the island back to its feet quickly.
“If they wanted to fix things fast, they could do it,” said Carlos Arias, 41, as he waited in a line of people snaking around a block in San Juan to fill up a canister with gasoline. “It’s a question of will.”
Maria was about 165 miles (270 km) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (120 kph), the National Hurricane Center said. It was expected to weaken and become a tropical storm over the next day.