WASHINGTON — The message was as stark as it was startling. Three weeks after a killer hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump indicated on Thursday that he was losing patience. At least some of the blame for the continuing crisis is yours, he told the island territory, and the federal government will not stay “forever.”
While most residents endured another day without power and many without water or other basic services, Trump upbraided Puerto Rico’s leadership for mismanagement that predated the storm and said troops and emergency workers would eventually leave. Caught off guard, his advisers scrambled to reassure Puerto Rico that Washington was not abandoning it.
The president’s warning came on the same day the House approved $36.5 billion in aid for natural disasters, including in Puerto Rico, with the tab rising weekly. Federal agencies expect to spend years helping the island rebuild. But Trump, who has been criticized for a slow and not always empathetic response to the storms that devastated Puerto Rico, sought to refocus responsibility to where he believes it belongs.
"Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making." says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
...accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
...We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
The tweets set off alarms in San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, where Ricardo A. Rosselló, the governor, anxiously called John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to seek an explanation. Kelly reassured him that no federal resources were being withdrawn anytime soon and then made an unannounced visit to the White House briefing room to repeat the message for the news media.
“Our country will stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done,” Kelly said. The president, he asserted, merely meant that eventually the federal government would complete its mission. “The whole point is to start to work yourself out of a job,” he said.
Shortly after, his deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen, in accepting Trump’s nomination to succeed Kelly as secretary of homeland security, added her own soothing words. “I also know that this rebuilding will take years, and I want to echo what the president has said many times: We will remain fully engaged in the long recovery effort ahead of us,” she said in the East Room.
But Trump did not say that on Thursday, even given the opportunity to clarify at the ceremony formally announcing Nielsen’s nomination. Instead, his message provoked another wave of criticism from the island and its supporters. They expressed astonishment that Trump would assail the very people he was supposed to be assisting, in contrast to the tone he has taken with Florida and Texas, where National Guard troops and Federal Emergency Management Agency workers are also still helping with hurricane recovery.
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan who has been critical of Trump’s response and rebuked by him in return, condemned his latest message as adding “insult to injury” and called on international organizations to step in to prevent “the genocide that will result from” Trump’s inaction.
“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.”
Rosselló was more restrained, as he has been through previous rounds of criticism by Trump. “I reiterate my plea that, as U.S. citizens, we are not asking for better treatment or less treatment,” he 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.”
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit, 83 percent of the island was still without power, 36 percent had no running water and 45 percent was without telecommunication services.
Hospitals are operating on generator power, which is expensive and unreliable. Although 86 percent of supermarkets are now open, the government could not ensure that they were fully stocked. And major roadways have been cleared of debris, but many Puerto Ricans are still relying on FEMA for food and water delivered to neighborhoods by local governments.
On a helicopter trip on Thursday morning to Cidra, a small city an hour south of San Juan, the devastated landscape was speckled with homes that were without roofs and 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 U.S. military effort in Puerto Rico, said conditions were only somewhat better 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 Trump’s tweets Thursday morning that the military could not stay in Puerto Rico forever, Buchanan said: “That’s true. We don’t do recovery. We do emergency response.”
He also said he had experienced no pressure to start pulling out troops: “Not at all, none whatsoever. I’ve gotten everything I’ve asked for.”
FEMA posted a Twitter message reassuring Puerto Ricans that it would be there “every day,” and other agencies were committed to long-term efforts, as well. The Army Corps of Engineers is helping rebuild the electrical grid, which could take years. The Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection have a permanent presence on the island and are unlikely to go anywhere.
A former official in the George W. Bush administration noted that the federal government kept at least some military presence 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 overall.
“It’s fairly typical for FEMA, DHS 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 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. This year, the government filed for bankruptcylike protection in federal court to stave off creditors, including mutual funds and hedge funds. The island got into its 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 phased out tax exemptions that made Puerto Rico a favorable location for pharmaceutical companies and other businesses to set up shop. Some businesses left, resulting in lower tax revenue and an outflow of workers to the mainland United States seeking jobs.
Puerto Rico’s economy has been in a recession for about a decade, and its poverty rate is about 45 percent. Hundreds of thousands of residents may leave if electricity is not restored soon. And while many luxury resorts may be fully operational by year’s end, there is growing concern about whether tourists will flock to the island when so many are living in desperate straits.
Trump’s tweets left advisers in an awkward position. At a House hearing on Thursday, Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, seemed deeply uncomfortable under questioning from Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., 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.