By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 26 (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Tuesday his administration was doing a “really good job” helping Puerto Rico recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, amid complaints that federal aid has been too slow to reach the U.S. territory.
Trump also agreed to boost federal disaster aid to the island, increasing funding to assist with debris removal and emergency protective measures, the White House said in a statement.
Critics of Trump and some residents of the island of 3.4 million people said the federal government had been too slow to provide basic needs, like drinking water and food, and to help with repairs to the electric grid.
Maria roared ashore last Wednesday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in almost 90 years, cutting power to the whole island and destroying homes and infrastructure.
Some critics of the federal response have suggested that Puerto Rico is not getting the same attention as it would if it were a state, even though its people are U.S. citizens.
“We’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and in Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico,” Trump told reporters in Washington, referring to the damage inflicted on those states by hurricanes Harvey and Irma in August and earlier this month.
“But the difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean. And we’re doing a really good job.”
Trump said he would visit Puerto Rico, and possibly the U.S. Virgin Islands, on Oct. 3.
Trump visited Texas and Florida after Harvey and Irma, mindful that the last Republican president, George W. Bush, faced widespread criticism for his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,800 people in and around New Orleans in 2005.
Bush faced particular ire for saying, at a time when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was widely seen as having responded inadequately, that the then-FEMA head, Michael Brown, was doing a “heckuva job.”
“Puerto Rico is very important to me and Puerto Rico – the people are fantastic people,” Trump said. “I grew up in New York so I know many people from Puerto Rico … these are great people and we have to help them. The island is devastated.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who is also from New York, criticized Trump’s assessment of the relief effort.
“With all due respect, President Trump, relief efforts are not ‘doing well,'” Schumer said.
He called on the Republican president to propose an aid package to Congress in the next day or two.
“The time for tweets and talk is over,” Schumer said.
FEMA said in a statement that 7 million meals and 4 million liters of water were en route to the island by barge. The agency had previously shipped more than 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, almost 300 infant and toddler kits, 70,000 tarps, and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The U.S. government has also sent more than 300 medical staff to the islands and is working to reopen hospitals. More than 150 patients have been moved to the continental United States so far. The Environmental Protection Agency sent a team to assess the drinking water and wastewaster situation.
Nine FEMA teams continue to do search-and-rescue operations on the islands.
‘NO AID’ YET
Many residents are still grappling to get basic essentials.
“No aid has arrived yet,” said Eneida Garcia, 61, as she sifted through the wreckage of her home in the southwestern town of Yauco.
Garcia inspected a damaged refrigerator on the floor of her kitchen, silted with mud after the storm burst the banks of a nearby river and flooded part of the town. It contained 120 eggs that were now unfit to eat, she said.
“We have nothing to eat now,” she said.
The mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, strongly criticized Trump for keeping the focus on the island’s $72 billion in debt, referring to tweets by Trump on Monday.
“You don’t put debt above people, you put people above debt,” she told CNN in an interview.
“When someone is in need, when someone is in dire need, when someone is in a life or death situation, there is a human, moral imperative to deal with that situation before dealing with anything else.”
Puerto Rico, which has struggled for years economically, filed the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history earlier this year. The island’s government asked a judge on Monday for up to four extra weeks to meet key deadlines in its bankruptcy case.
In one of a series of Twitter posts on Monday, Trump said, “Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
Many structures on the island, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded, with clean drinking water hard to find in some areas. Few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has called for federal aid to flow quickly to the island.
Singer Marc Anthony, whose family is from Puerto Rico, joined the criticism of Trump in a strongly-worded Twitter post on Monday, saying Trump should stop dwelling on a controversy involving National Football League players and the national anthem. “Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico. We are American citizens too,” he tweeted.
Six days after the storm hit, officials were still taking stock of what was expected to be a months-long effort to rebuild the power system, meaning many people will be without electricity for an extended period.
Maria was located about 175 miles (285 km) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (120 kph), the National Hurricane Center said. It was expected to weaken and become a tropical storm over the next day as it headed north in the Atlantic Ocean.
Forecast tracks showed it headed away from the U.S. mainland over the next few days. (Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland, David Shepardson, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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