Democrats, Puerto Ricans decry Trump's threatened pullback of federal help for the battered island

President Trump drew a sharp and dismayed backlash Thursday from Democratic lawmakers, activists and many Puerto Ricans with his threat to limit federal and military help in the hurricane-battered U.S. territory, where aid workers are warning of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria raked the island, some 85% of the people remain without power, with nearly half of its 3.4 million residents lacking running water.

Food and basic supplies remain scarce in the mountainous interior, waterborne diseases pose a growing threat, and many hospitals are in dire circumstances. Deaths attributed to the storm stand at 45, but the number is expected to rise.

The Environmental Protection Agency this week advised against “tampering with sealed or locked wells or drinking from these wells” after reports of Puerto Rico residents trying to get water from wells at “Superfund” hazardous-waste sites.

In a series of tweets early Thursday, Trump implied that Puerto Rico was to blame for its problems, and suggested he would not endorse the type of years-long, multibillion-dollar federal recovery effort that typically follows a storm of such magnitude, or another large-scale disaster, striking a U.S. locale.

"We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!" Trump said in one tweet.

He also cited what he called a “total lack of accountability” on Puerto Rico’s part, and quoted a conservative journalist who characterized the island's financial crisis as a problem "of their own making."

Despite a triumphal tone during a presidential visit to the island last week, during which he praised the recovery effort to date as “amazing,” Trump has appeared to grow more and more frustrated with criticism of the scope and timing of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico.

He and aides have painted a picture of robust progress, spoken at length of logistical challenges being overcome and leveled sharp criticism at some local officials.

For some Puerto Ricans, federal aid is arriving — but slowly. In the western municipality of Las Marias, 62-year-old Ana Bourdain Jimenez had been cooking with water from a local stream, which sickened her son. On Thursday, a volunteer brought her some drinking water — five bottles’ worth.

“We hardly see water like that here,” she said.

The verbal dust-up over Puerto Rico, whose residents are U.S. citizens at birth, coincides with a post-storm cash crunch for the island. On Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a $36.5-billion measure that would replenish government disaster aid funds and help Puerto Rico’s government keep working. The Senate is to take up the bill next week.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello told lawmakers over the weekend that without congressional action, the territory’s government would be unable to pay workers or vendors at the end of October.

The governor, who has been careful to avoid alienating Trump and consistently praised federal efforts, responded cautiously Thursday, although he made a point of referring to the island’s status as an American territory and its people as citizens.

“The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our nation,” he tweeted.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who Trump said displayed “poor leadership” after she criticized elements of the federal aid effort, said Thursday that Trump’s hurricane response had proved him derelict in his duty as president.

“Puerto Ricans have suffered greatly in the past month. Two hurricanes devastated our homes and our electrical infrastructure leaving us without the essentials to survive: drinkable water, food and medicine,” Cruz said in a statement. “But perhaps more frustrating has been the devastating actions, time after time, by a President whose tweets, comments and actions seem to be taken out of a book on ‘how to add insult to injury’ rather than a book on ‘how to help during a humanitarian crisis.’

"Mr. President, you seem to want to disregard the moral imperative that your administration has been unable to fulfill,” she said.

Some saw Trump’s seeming hostility toward the predominantly Spanish-speaking island as fueling yet another divisive, racially tinged controversy of the president’s own making, in the mold of his response in August to deadly violence after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., or his fury directed at predominantly African American NFL players who have chosen to kneel in protest during the pregame playing of the national anthem.

In contrast to a tweet about Puerto Ricans wanting “everything done for them,” Trump has repeatedly praised the strength and determination of residents of Texas and Florida, states that also were slammed this hurricane season by storms Harvey and Irma, respectively.

Veterans of disaster-response efforts have said that getting things back on track after a powerful and destructive storm is generally an expensive and drawn-out affair. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, for example, the federal government spent more than $100 billion in Louisiana and elsewhere, with a military presence lasting months.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Trump’s tweets were not only “heartbreaking” but reflected a lack of knowledge about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s role.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Twitter that “Americans are still dying” in Puerto Rico, and “FEMA needs to stay until the job is done.”

Others employed even blunter language. “Step up & do your job,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted at Trump. “Stop lying about how well things are going in Puerto Rico. Stop trying to avoid responsibility.”

Almost from the time the storm struck Puerto Rico, the pace, scope and tone of Trump’s response to the disaster there has stirred controversy.

Maria hit the island on a Wednesday, Sept. 20; Trump, who had been in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, subsequently spent a long weekend at his New Jersey golf property, and critics said that lag overlapped with a period during which initial efforts should have been urgently launched.

It took a week for the administration to suspend the Jones Act and allow foreign-flagged ships to land with relief supplies; that suspension has now expired. The military command of the relief effort was initially handed to a lower-ranking officer; a three-star general replaced him, but not until 10 days after the storm.

The island’s infrastructure and finances were already tottering before the hurricane, but Trump’s early and repeated references to that fact struck some as insensitive.

On his visit last week, Trump said Puerto Rico had thrown his budget “out of whack,” and hailed the death toll as low compared with a “real catastrophe” like Katrina.

Even as attention to the issue was fading amid a crush of other news, Trump ruminated Sunday on Twitter about “so little appreciation” being afforded him for the administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico. And actively prolonging the administration’s feud with Cruz, FEMA Administrator Brock Long spoke dismissively of the San Juan mayor, saying his agency “filtered out” whatever she had to say.

Lawmakers with close ties to the island, or large Puerto Rican constituencies, have been scathing in their reviews of Trump’s performance, and were more so after his tweets.

Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), a Puerto Rico native, said in a statement that the president's words and actions had “called into question his ability to lead.”

“We will not allow the federal government to abandon Puerto Rico in its time of need,” she said.

Like many of Trump’s more inflammatory utterances, the Puerto Rico tweets landed early Thursday, before the start of business hours, leaving White House aides to make later-in-the-day statements that incorporated elements of the president’s language while seemingly attempting to soften a harsh tone.

The White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, framed the president’s tweets as meaning that first responders, including the military, were always mindful of the need for swift progress — “working very hard to work yourself out of a job,” as he put it to reporters.

Special correspondent Milton Carrero Galarza in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, and staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

laura.king@latimes.com | Twitter: @Noahbierman

noah.bierman@latimes.com | Twitter: @LauraKingLAT

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UPDATES:

4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with a quote from an aid recipient in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, and other details.

This article was originally published at 1:25 p.m.

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