The Trump administration scrambled Friday to show it is on top of the crisis in Puerto Rico as it faced criticism from lawmakers in both parties that its response so far has been lacking.
Puerto Rican officials are amplifying their warnings of an imminent humanitarian crisis, with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz making an emotional plea for someone — anyone — to take charge of emergency relief operations, heightening the sense of urgency on the hurricane-ravaged island.
“I will do what I never thought I was going to do: I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us, to save us from dying,” Cruz said Friday afternoon. “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency.”
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke traveled to the U.S. territory on Friday to help coordinate the government’s response effort to Hurricane Maria’s widespread devastation, while President Trump is scheduled to make a trip on Tuesday. Vice President Pence will follow late next week.
“We have a lot of big decisions. … I’ll be talking with the Democrats, and we’ll be talking to Congress, about what we’re going to do a little bit longer term,” Trump told reporters Friday afternoon. “In the meantime, we’ve saved a lot of lives, we’ve done a really good job, and now we’re bringing the people for distribution.”
The three-star general recently put in charge of U.S. military relief operations in Puerto Rico said Friday that there are as many as 4,600 troops on the ground in Puerto Rico — including members of the National Guard and Reserves — and the Pentagon would be sending more troops and vehicles to the island, where residents could be without power for six months.
“Our capability is building every single day, and we’re going to keep building until we’ve fully met the needs of the people of Puerto Rico,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said during a phone briefing with reporters. “It’s a total force commitment.”
He did not say how many more troops might be deployed but vowed “to continue to bring people in as long as there’s a need.”
Officials are facing a host of infrastructure and bureaucratic challenges that are continuing to paralyze relief efforts on the ground.
Damaged ports, blocked roads and washed out bridges are preventing critical supplies from getting distributed throughout the island. There is also a shortage of fuel and difficulties reaching truck drivers while telecommunications remain down.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that while conditions are slowly improving, relief efforts remain saddled by “severe logistical limitations.”
Trump acknowledged the difficulties facing emergency responders, saying the effort has been hampered by the simple fact that Puerto Rico is not connected to the mainland.
“This is an island, surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water,” the president said Friday.
Trump also suggested the government of Puerto Rico “will have to work with us” to determine how the rebuilding process will be funded, potentially fueling criticism that the White House is treating the island territory differently than states hit by hurricanes.
Frustration on the ground appeared to be mounting.
“Damnit, this is not a good news story,” Mayor Cruz told CNN on Friday morning, after she was told that Duke had called the government’s response to Puerto Rico a “good news story.”
“This is a people-are-dying story,” Cruz said.
After taking heat for the comments, Duke sought to clarify what she meant by her statement.
“We will never be satisfied,” Duke told reporters at the San Juan International Airport, before boarding a helicopter to view the devastation caused by Maria, according to CNN.
“The end of my statement about good news was it was good news that the people of Puerto Rico, the many public servants of the U.S. and the government of Puerto Rico are working together. … It’s nice to see the communities together trying to recover and support each other.”
Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisionsSenate passes 0B defense billTrump bets base will stick with him on immigrationMORE (R-Fla.) urged Trump to put the military in charge of the relief effort outright — a notion sure to rankle defenders of Puerto Rico’s autonomy, some of whom are already pushing to transfer more control to local officials.
Rubio said aid is stuck in Puerto Rico’s ports, arguing the local government was ill equipped to handle the crisis.
Capitol Hill Democrats — joined by a handful of Republicans — are accusing the administration of moving too slowly to mobilize a relief blitz. They’re calling for Trump to expand and accelerate its military response with the deployment of more troops and ships.
“Where the hell is the cavalry?” Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDem asks airlines to cap airfares ahead of Hurricane MariaTrump encourages Rick Scott to run for SenateOvernight Regulation: House moves to block methane rule | Senators wrestle with allowing driverless trucks | EPA delays toxic waste ruleMORE (D-Fla.) asked Thursday.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the Pentagon response, so far, is “one-tenth of the numbers” mobilized following Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. As a first step, he’s urging that the Abraham Lincoln Aircraft Carrier, currently in Florida, be sent to the islands.
“We have the requisite number of troops, they ought to be deployed,” he told Bloomberg News.
The administration has stepped up its response in recent days.
On Thursday, the administration put Buchanan in charge of all military response operations, with a focus on ensuring that emergency aid and other critical supplies reach remote parts of the island. Buchanan said Friday that conditions have improved enough that the operation has evolved from a “maritime-based command to land-based command.”
The Department of Homeland Security also agreed on Thursday to waive the Jones Act for 10 days in order to allow foreign ships to deliver cargo to Puerto Rico and pitch in with relief efforts.
The decision followed days of public outcry that the century-old shipping law was not immediately waived for Puerto Rico — something that was done for Texas and Florida soon after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
The administration has also waived a requirement that Puerto Rico, which is grappling with a debt crisis, match a percentage of federal funds for the next six months.
Trump and Rosselló have been in close contact throughout the recovery missions, according to officials.
“I can say that the president has been very diligent,” Rosselló said. “He has been essentially talking to us every day.”
Congress earlier on Thursday released nearly $7 billion in funds to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). An emergency supplement request is expected to follow in the coming weeks, the White House said, and congressional leaders are vowing to act on it quickly.
FEMA has set up 11 distribution centers for food, water and medicine, apart from a central hub where the operation is coordinated. The agency is also working with the Puerto Rican government and the military to make all hospitals on the island operational.
John Rabin, who heads the FEMA branch governing Puerto Rico, said Friday that only one of the island’s 69 hospitals is fully functional, while 59 are “functional though degraded,” meaning they’re running on generator power and many are not accepting new patients. Four hospitals are closed, he said, and the remaining five are still being assessed.
Democratic lawmakers are pushing for the White House to do more.
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee requested an emergency hearing to get updates from officials about the government’s response to the recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Some lawmakers are pressing for a one-year waiver from the Jones Act, arguing that the 10-day exemption will do little to help goods get more quickly and cheaply delivered to Puerto Rico. They point out that the island could be rebuilding for months.
“Ten days is nothing,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) told reporters in the Capitol Thursday.
Meanwhile, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), a Puerto Rican native who visited the island last week, is leading a push to have the co-payment waiver extended beyond the 180 days, “including for non-emergency resources.”
Lawmakers have also slammed the administration for not sending the three-star general to Puerto Rico sooner.
“They knew this storm was coming. They shouldn’t be launching any of these efforts, from here, more than a week later,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.).
The mounting scrutiny has put the White House on the defensive.
During a press briefing on Thursday, Trump homeland security adviser said many news reports contain outdated or misleading information, which he said has created the false impression that the White House has neglected the people of Puerto Rico.
“The people of Puerto Rico have every bit of support from President Trump that he gave to the citizens of every other state in this country,” Tom Bossert told reporters at the White House.
Bossert also said that the three-star general was not needed on the ground before Thursday, while the Jones Act waiver came “immediately” after a formal request was made by the governor — though lawmakers had been pushing for it all week.