SAN JUAN, P.R. — In the storm-battered neighborhood of Barriada Figueroa on Friday, neighbors greeted visitors with a now-familiar question, one that was inevitably followed by a disappointing answer: “Are you FEMA?”
Hurricane Maria had ripped walls and metal roofs from the brightly colored homes in this working-class neighborhood in central San Juan. Nine days after the storm hit, putrid water still lay stagnant in the streets.
Aida Perez, 73, gave a tour of her house, pointing to the holes in her roof and ceiling. She said she could use a tarp. And food. And money. But no federal officials had been spotted yet.
“After Georges, FEMA came, the Red Cross came, and they came rapidly,” she said, referring to Hurricane Georges, the 1998 storm that caused extreme damage here, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The slow pace of the federal response to Hurricane Maria — and the upbeat portrayal of the response by federal officials, including President Trump — threatened this week to become an embarrassment and political liability for the administration as it scrambled to confront a natural disaster that has overwhelmed this island, and presented breathtaking logistical challenges.
On Friday evening, Mr. Trump again repeatedly praised his government’s response to the Puerto Rico hurricane during remarks to reporters before leaving for his New Jersey club for the weekend.
“It’s going really well, considering,” Mr. Trump said. He added: “We’ve made tremendous strides. Very tough situation.” Later, he said, “People can’t believe how successful it’s been.”
But the disconnect between what officials in Washington were saying and the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico was captured on live television by the response of the mayor of San Juan when she was played a clip of the acting Homeland Security secretary, Elaine Duke, saying that she was “very satisfied” with the government’s response. Ms. Duke called it “a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place.”
The retort from Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz: “This is, damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a ‘life or death’ story. This is ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.”
Mr. Trump’s political adversaries quickly pounced on what they said was evidence of a lack of interest or urgency on the part of the president. And some saw an echo of the comments made in 2005 by former President George W. Bush, when he praised then-FEMA head Michael Brown for doing “a heck of a job” in the midst of what was widely seen as a slow and botched recovery effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“The problem is, and this is what felled the Bush administration: images tell the whole story,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who served as a communications director and senior adviser for former President Barack Obama. “You had Trump on Twitter saying one thing, and then you have the images all over cable news telling a different story.”
Peter Feaver, a national security official for Mr. Bush during Katrina, said there were many similarities between Hurricane Maria and the 2005 storm, each of which hold lessons for Mr. Trump and his team.
“There are echoes to it that should concern the White House,” Mr. Feaver said. “They would be wise that they not take it for granted that they can avoid that image stamped on this episode.”
“What matters more is the perception than the reality,” Mr. Feaver added. “The best after-action histories did not condemn Bush as vividly as the immediate media framing.”
The administration is unquestionably facing a daunting task. The hurricane knocked out nearly all of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, and most of its cellular service. Roads are damaged, bridges have collapsed, and an unknown number of Puerto Ricans are stranded in the hills and hollows of the mountain interior without access to water or food.
Representatives of the commonwealth government stationed outside the capital have taken to driving to San Juan in person to present their progress reports. On Friday, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló said that the government would begin commandeering and giving away at least 3,000 containers of cargo stuck at the Port of San Juan, much of it meant for the island’s supermarkets, if the stores themselves could not move the merchandise.
But hundreds of supermarkets remained closed because of a lack of diesel fuel to run their generators, and the high demand for diesel has now created a black market for it. The local and federal governments have been unable to come up with a solution, said Manuel Reyes Alfonso, executive vice president of MIDA, the island’s food industry association.
“The distribution of food has turned into the distribution of diesel,” said Mr. Reyes. “I think many are underestimating the potential of crisis. It becomes a crisis when retailers start closing when they don’t have diesel and the food gets wasted, and it’s happening more often than people think.”
Omar Marrero, the ports director in Puerto Rico, said the government had a right to expropriate shipments.
But food distributors pushed back, saying the government had neither the capacity nor experience to distribute food. “They should do that if they want chaos and make sure that nobody eats for two weeks,” said Angel Torres, the president of Plaza Provision Company, an importer for Kraft and other companies. “That would be crazy.”
Nelson O. Vázquez, president of the Selectos supermarket chain, said FEMA had done a poor job of managing the acute diesel shortage, which was crippling the food supply and leaving store shelves bare.
“They haven’t been quick enough,” Mr. Vázquez said. “If people start getting hungry and not getting supplies they need, they are going to start looting.”
By Friday, the Trump administration appeared to have awakened to the risks in offering an overly sunny assessment, sending a number of top military and other officials to the island in advance of the president’s trip here next Tuesday, a show of its commitment and focus.
In interviews aboard an Air Force flight to Puerto Rico, administration officials did their best to downplay Ms. Duke’s comments, while highlighting the administration’s efforts to distribute fuel, clean water, ice and other basic supplies that are running critically short on the entire island of 3.4 million people, who remained without electricity.
“I don’t think you can ever be satisfied when you have people who are in need,” said Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers.
He added: “But I don’t know of anything right now that we are not doing that we couldn’t do. There are no other knobs that we can turn to be able to go any faster.”
Vice Adm. Karl Shultz, the commander of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area, agreed.
“I would hope that people would understand the facts, understand what is going on,” Admiral Shultz said. “It’s easy to criticize when you don’t have visibility of all the things.”
And Ms. Duke sought to clarify her remarks during a short news conference at the San Juan airport before taking off on a helicopter tour of the damage to the island.
“The end of my statement about good news was that it was good news that the people of Puerto Rico, the many public servants of the United States and the government of Puerto Rico were working together,” she said.
White House officials said the response was robust even before the storm made landfall. By the day after, 3,500 federal workers were on the ground with 500 generators, distributing 274,000 meals. Within days, federal officials had a million liters of water in Puerto Rico and military officials were transporting 124,000 gallons of fuel. By Friday, FEMA had 10,000 people on the island, including 17 chainsaw teams clearing debris.
The federal effort has come in for praise from some, including Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner and the island’s representative in Congress. She said workers from FEMA, the Coast Guard, and other agencies had begun the massive logistical challenge of restoring roads and communications almost as soon as the storm had passed.
“We’ve never before got this kind of communications with the federal government,” said Ms. González-Colón.
Ms. González-Colón, who was traveling with Ms. Duke’s delegation, said the federal and Puerto Rican governments’ recovery efforts had been hampered by the unique challenges of trying to restore power and distribute supplies on an island where the infrastructure has largely been destroyed.
“It’s not like Florida or Texas,” she said. “Those states the federal government sent aid by highways, by helicopter, by trains. In Puerto Rico, you can’t do that.”
The distinction was lost on a number of island residents on Friday. In a stretch of Ocean Park, a middle-class San Juan neighborhood that seemed to be just as badly damaged as Barriada Figueroa, David Wittig, a chiropractor, lamented the fact that he had seen no one from FEMA on his block, a virtual war zone of vile, thigh-high water, felled trees and flood-rotted furniture.
“No water. No MREs,” said Mr. Wittig, 49, referring to military meals. “No ice. No ice trucks. No hygiene products for women.”
José Alvarez, 53, a school security guard in the southern city of Ponce, said people were growing frustrated at the shortages.
“Right now if you got to any store the grocers are running low, the shelves are bare,” he said. “If six people live in your house and you buy two small containers of milk, how long is that going to last? They limit what you can buy. Milk, two. Bread, one package. That’s if they have it. There are a lot of things they just don’t have.”
Richard Fausset, Ron Nixon and Frances Robles reported from San Juan, and Michael D. Shear from Washington.