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Trump plays down hurricane damage to Puerto Rico

On visit to storm-ravaged island, president says Hurricane Maria was not a ‘real catastrophe’

US president Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at a distribution centre in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Donald Trump played down the impact of Hurricane Maria as the US president arrived in Puerto Rico and praised his administration’s efforts amid criticism of the speed, scale and tone of the White House’s response to the disaster.

At a meeting with local officials in San Juan, the US territory’s capital, Mr Trump focused as much on applauding the efforts of his own staff as on consoling victims of the natural disaster, which claimed 16 lives and wrought destruction across the island.

After singling out members of his cabinet for praise and applauding his unrelated efforts to lower the cost of the F-35 fighter jet, Mr Trump praised local officials for keeping the death toll to 16, and suggested that his response was better than the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Everybody watching can really be very proud of what is taking place in Puerto Rico,” Mr Trump said, adding that Hurricane Maria was not a “real catastrophe like Katrina”.

“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you have thrown our budget a little out of whack because we spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico,” Mr Trump added, in comments that sparked criticism on social media. “That’s fine because we have saved a lot of lives.”


Clean water

As the president and first lady touched down at Muñiz Air National Guard Base, most of Puerto Rico remained without power, communication or clean water. In its central region, which was among the hardest hit by the storm, as well as more remote areas like the islands of Vieques and Culebra, the lack of cellular service means many residents were unaware of the visit.

The island is slowly making progress nearly two weeks after the hurricane made landfall, with more than 9,000 personnel from the US defence department now on the ground. The National Guard had cleared most main thoroughfares over the weekend and by Monday had moved on to secondary roads, including in the mountainous region of Utuado where mudslides had left residents homebound for days.

But the progress has come in fits and starts and the vast majority of the island is expected to remain unconnected to the electric grid until the end of October. Governor Ricardo Rosselló said the number of residents with access to clean water dropped on Tuesday after some of the generators powering the water and sewage authority ran out of fuel.

Local reservists

Jeffrey Buchanan, the three-star general appointed by the Pentagon to oversee relief efforts across Puerto Rico, said that he would like to bring in local reservists or National Guard members rather than necessarily pulling forces from the mainland.

“Many of them are trying to take care of their families,” he said, adding that “they know the place, it just makes a lot better sense doing that. We are bringing in more helicopters, more medical units, more logistics units.”

Mr Rosselló said that his conversation with Mr Trump would focus on what “damage [was] caused by the storm, what do we need . . . and what do we need to rebuild for the future”. He added that he did not expect the president’s trip to affect relief operations across the island.

“It is not going to affect the logistical route in Puerto Rico,” he added. “All the assets that have come in for the security of the president have been external and added for that purpose.”

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)