Trump sees 'miracle' Puerto Rico survival, ignores critics

2017-10-04 18:52
President Donald Trump hands out canned goods and other supplies in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. (Evan Vucci, AP)

President Donald Trump hands out canned goods and other supplies in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. (Evan Vucci, AP)

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San Juan - Touring a small slice of Hurricane Maria's devastation, President Donald Trump congratulated Puerto Rico on Tuesday for escaping the higher death toll of "a real catastrophe like Katrina" and heaped praise on the relief efforts of his administration without mentioning the sharp criticism the federal response has drawn.

"Really nothing short of a miracle," he said of the recovery, an assessment at odds with the despair of many still struggling to find water and food outside the capital city in wide swaths of an island where only 5% of electricity customers have power back.

The governor of Puerto Rico said late on Tuesday that the official death toll has been increased to 34 from 16.

In the heart of San Juan, in fact, a few kilometres from the air base where Trump gave his thumbs-up report on progress, people stacked sewage-fouled clothes and mattresses outside houses and businesses lacking electricity nearly two weeks after the storm.

"Nobody's come," said Ray Negron, 38, collecting debris in the Playita neighbourhood.

Trump pledged an all-out effort to help the island while adding, somewhat lightly: "Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that's fine. We've saved a lot of lives."

Known deaths from Maria in the US territory stand at 34.

Thirst, hunger, extreme heat

But local officials caution that any accounting of death and destruction is far from complete as people suffer secondary effects from thirst, hunger and extreme heat without air conditioning. 

The visit offered fresh evidence of the unconventional path Trump has taken in responding to the one-two-three punch from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

His effusive praise for federal relief efforts has overshadowed his displays of empathy for those who are suffering. And in Puerto Rico, in particular, his criticism of local people for not doing more to help themselves has struck an off note during a time of crisis.

Trump said his visit was "not about me" but then praised local officials for offering kind words about his administration's recovery effort and invited one to repeat the "nice things" she'd said earlier. 

Trump's most prominent critic in Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, joined other officials at the air base for a briefing with him, shook the president's hand and said afterward she hoped he now understood the gravity of the situation. But his comment implying Maria was not a Katrina-level event left her unsure.

"Sometimes his style of communication gets in the way," she told CNN. "I would hope that the president of the United States stops spouting out comments that really hurt the people of Puerto Rico."

On a more positive note, Cruz said: "I saw a real connection between the reality and the White House staff. I think they finally understood."

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