At first, the Trump administration seemed to be doing all the right things to respond to the disaster in Puerto Rico.
As Hurricane Maria made landfall on Wednesday, Sept. 20, there was a frenzy of activity publicly and privately. The next day, President Trump called local officials on the island, issued an emergency declaration and pledged that all federal resources would be directed to help.
But then for four days after that — as storm-ravaged Puerto Rico struggled for food and water amid the darkness of power outages — Trump and his top aides effectively went dark themselves.
Trump jetted to New Jersey that Thursday night to spend a long weekend at his private golf club there, save for a quick trip to Alabama for a political rally. Neither Trump nor any of his senior White House aides said a word publicly about the unfolding crisis.
Trump did hold a meeting at his golf club that Friday with half a dozen Cabinet officials — including acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke, who oversees disaster response — but the gathering was to discuss his new travel ban, not the hurricane. Duke and Trump spoke briefly about Puerto Rico but did not talk again until Tuesday, an administration official said.
Administration officials would not say whether the president spoke with any other top officials involved in the storm response while in Bedminster, N.J. He spent much of his time over those four days fixated on his escalating public feuds with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with fellow Republicans in Congress and with the National Football League over protests during the national anthem.
In Puerto Rico, meanwhile, the scope of the devastation was becoming clearer. Virtually the entire island was without power and much of it could be for weeks, officials estimated, and about half of the more than 3 million residents did not have access to clean water. Gas was in short supply, airports and ports were in disrepair, and telecommunications infrastructure had been destroyed.
Federal and local officials said the lack of communications on the island made the task of assessing the widespread damage far more challenging, and even local officials were slow to recognize that for this storm, far more help would be necessary.
“I don’t think that anybody realized how bad this was going to be,” said a person familiar with discussions between Washington and officials in Puerto Rico. “Quite frankly, the level of communications and collaboration that I’ve seen with Irma and now Maria between the administration, local government and our office has been unprecedented.”
“Whether that’s been translated into effectiveness on the ground, that’s up for interpretation,” the person added.
Unlike what they faced after recent storms in Texas and Florida, the federal agencies found themselves partnered with a government completely flattened by the hurricane and operating with almost no information about the status of its citizens. The Federal Emergency Management Agency struggled to find truck drivers to deliver aid from ports to people in need, for example.
“The level of devastation and the impact on the first responders we closely work with was so great that those people were having to take care of their families and homes to an extent we don’t normally see,” said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want his statement to be interpreted as criticism of authorities in Puerto Rico. “The Department of Defense, FEMA and the federal government are having to step in to fulfill state and municipal functions that we normally just support.”
Even though local officials had said publicly as early as Sept. 20, the day of the storm, that the island was “destroyed,” the sense of urgency didn’t begin to penetrate the White House until Monday, when images of the utter destruction and desperation — and criticism of the administration’s response — began to appear on television, one senior administration official said.
“The Trump administration was slow off the mark,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D), the first Florida lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent elected to Congress. “. . . We’ve invaded small countries faster than we’ve been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”
Trump’s public schedule Monday was devoid of any meetings related to the storm, but he was becoming frustrated by the coverage he was seeing on TV, the senior official said.
At a dinner Monday evening with conservative leaders at the White House, Trump opened the gathering by briefly lamenting the tragedy unfolding in Puerto Rico before launching into a lengthy diatribe against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over his opposition to the Republicans’ failed health-care bill, according to one attendee.
After the dinner, Trump lashed out on social media. He blamed the island’s financial woes and ailing infrastructure for the difficult recovery process. He also declared that efforts to provide food, water and medical care were “doing well.”
On the ground in Puerto Rico, nothing could be further from the truth. It had taken until Monday — five days after Maria made landfall — for the first senior administration officials from Washington to touch down to survey the damage firsthand. And only after White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA Director Brock Long returned to Washington did the administration leap into action.
Trump presided over a Situation Room meeting on the federal and local efforts Tuesday, and late in the day, the White House added a Cabinet-level meeting on Hurricane Maria to the president’s schedule.
White House aides say the president was updated on progress in the recovery efforts through the weekend, and an administration official said Vice President Pence talked with Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, over the weekend. Trump spoke to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló after Maria made landfall and again Tuesday; he spoke to González-Colón for the first time Wednesday.
The administration still fumbled at key moments after stepping up its response. A week after landfall, Trump still had not waived the Jones Act, a law that barred foreign-flagged vessels from delivering aid to Puerto Rico. Such a waiver had been granted for previous hurricanes this year.
Asked why his administration had delayed in issuing the waiver, Trump said Wednesday that “a lot of shippers and . . . a lot of people that work in the shipping industry” didn’t want it lifted.
“If this is supposed to be the ‘drain the swamp’ president, then don’t worry about the lobbyists and do what’s needed and waive the act,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush who oversaw disaster response for the agency. “We’re talking about people here.”
Trump waived the law Thursday.
After getting good marks from many for his administration’s response to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, Trump has struggled to find the right tone to address the harsher reviews after Maria. He has repeatedly praised his administration’s actions, telling reporters Friday that it has “been incredible the results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life” in Puerto Rico. The official death toll is 16, a number that is expected to rise.
“We have done an incredible job considering there’s absolutely nothing to work with,” Trump said as he was leaving the White House for another weekend at Bedminster.
At the same time, he said that “the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort . . . will be funded and organized,” and he referred to the “tremendous amount of existing debt” on the island.
Trump’s top disaster-response aides have blanketed television in recent days in an attempt to reset the narrative. Duke, the acting DHS secretary, told reporters Thursday outside the White House that Puerto Rico was a “good news story.” The comment seemed to unleash pent-up fury from at least one local official, after days of offering praise to the Trump administration in an apparent effort to secure more federal help.
“I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said at a news conference Friday. “I am done being polite, I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell. . . . We are dying here. If we don’t get the food and the water into the people’s hands, we are going to see something close to a genocide.”
Trump’s rosy assessment of the federal response has also contrasted sharply with the comments of federal officials on the ground.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who was named this week to lead recovery efforts, told reporters Friday that there were not enough people and assets to help Puerto Rico combat what has become a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the storm.
The military has significantly stepped up its mobilization to the island commonwealth, with dozens more aircraft and thousands of soldiers bringing “more logistical support” to a struggling recovery effort that has been delayed by geographical and tactical challenges.
Buchanan said that Defense Department forces have been in place since before the storm lashed Puerto Rico but that the arrival of additional resources is part of the natural shift in operations. Sometimes troops act ahead of the local government to meet needs, but they were also waiting for an “actual request” from territorial officials to bring in more resources. Buchanan will bring together land forces, including the Puerto Rico National Guard, to begin pushing into the interior of the island, where aid has been slowed by washed-out roads and difficult terrain. The Navy previously led the military response in Puerto Rico.
“No, it’s not enough, and that’s why we are bringing a lot more,” the three-star general said of the resources in Puerto Rico thus far.
Arelis R. Hernández in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and John Wagner and Joel Achenbach in Washington contributed to this report.