The Trump administration Friday faced more backlash over the unfolding Hurricane Maria humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, despite the president and other officials indicating the federal government was fully engaged in providing relief.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz was among the most vocal critics of the federal government’s response, saying acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke’s reference a day earlier to relief efforts as a good news story was inappropriate. The situation was about life and death, Cruz said.
Island residents have gone without water, food, power and gas and faced other dire conditions since Hurricane Maria made landfall more than a week ago.
Cruz said people on the island were devastated and that she was frustrated by bureaucracy getting in the way of relief. She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had requested a memo with a list of needs.
“I’m mad as hell because my peoples’ lives are at stake . . . . We are dying here,” Cruz said, nearly tearing up during a news conference. “If we don’t get the food and the water into people’s hands, what we are going to see is something close to a genocide.”
Cruz said when President Trump visits Tuesday, as planned, he should not only get an aerial view of the situation but actually see municipalities.
“Let him walk in Comerio and see people drinking water from a creek, let him go to Rincon and see people huddled over because they have no food or water,” she said. “Let him hear the cries of elderly people, outside of windows and doors, screaming ‘help us.’ ”
Duke, meanwhile, visited the U.S. territory Friday, and assured residents that emergency responders were doing everything they could to provide much needed help.
“The president won’t be fully satisfied, however, until every Puerto Rican is back home, the power is back on, clean water is available, schools and hospitals are fully open and the Puerto Rican economy is working,” Duke said.
“We have over 10,000 federal people on the ground,” she said.
Duke’s visit came as many Puerto Ricans were trying to leave the storm-ravaged island, where power remained out for many of the 3.4 million residents and blocked roads have slowed relief efforts.
Puerto Rico officials say there have been at least 16 storm-related deaths. At least two people died when their life support monitors shut down because a generator supplying electricity ran out of fuel.
FEMA said it has about 800 personnel on the island of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is also coordinating efforts with other agencies and organizations to provide millions of meals and liters of water to the islands.
At least 26 chainsaw teams are in Puerto Rico from the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service to help clear roads so that supplies may reach the rural communities of the island, which have been nearly cut off because of fallen trees and impassible roads.
Officials said 5,000 military and National Guard personnel are also on the island and will be led by a three-star general.
The Pentagon said eight C-17 cargo jets were en route to Puerto Rico carrying food and water for 250,000 people along with long-term management teams to receive the increasing flow of federal personnel, equipment and supplies.
The Comfort, a super tanker modified into a 1,000-bed medical treatment facility, left port in Virginia and was on its way to Puerto Rico. It was expected to arrive by Wednesday, joining four other U.S. Navy ships already operating around Puerto Rico.
Five other barges are scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico before Thursday with 2.5 million liters of water, 3 million meals and two generators, the Pentagon said.
John Rabin, acting regional administrator for FEMA, said in a phone conference the agency had completed its assessment of damages to most hospitals and municipalities. Many hospitals are taking in patients. The agency is working on clearing roads to allow delivery of food and water to more areas.
Electricity remains out of service for much of the island, which has been a major obstacle for emergency responders.
The collapse of the power system has made it difficult to pump water supplies — the water authority is one of the power authority’s biggest clients — and also to operate the cellular phone system, which also relies on the power grid.
FEMA and military officials said much of the island’s infrastructure, which was already in need of maintenance, was severely damaged by the storm.
“This storm was catastrophic to the point where concrete transportation lines and concrete electrical poles were knocked down and destroyed. Transportation will have to be rebuilt on the entire island and will be a long process” Rabin said.
Tower technician Jonathan Huertas, 37, of Knoxville, Tenn., was in San Juan with a team of communications workers from Goodman Networks helping to restore cellular phone service.
“This is my ninth hurricane,” Huertas said in a cellphone interview in San Juan. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Trump, speaking in Washington, said the federal government was “engaged fully” in the relief effort. Trump said the rebuilding effort was “starting from scratch,” but that the administration will not rest until people on the island are safe.
Times staff writers Vives and Etehad reported from Los Angeles and Hennigan from Washington. Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments including those from federal authorities and the San Juan mayor.
1:00 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.
This article was originally published at 9:55 a.m.