Donald Trump accuses Puerto Ricans of wanting 'everything done for them'

VIDEO: REUTERS

SAN JUAN (AFP) - President Donald Trump on Saturday (Sept 30) accused Puerto Ricans of wanting "everything to be done for them," even as criticism grew that federal relief efforts amid devastating hurricane damage have fallen desperately short.

While much of the US territory remained without power, fresh water or communications links long after the catastrophic passage of Hurricane Maria, reports continued to filter in on Saturday of battered towns across the island that have yet to see any federal or local presence.

Enormous, hours-long queues grew at San Juan gas stations - some patrolled by private security guards - while desperate residents in the interior said reporters were the first outsiders they had seen.

"There's been no help from Fema nor from the federal government nor from anyone," said Elisa Gonzalez, 49.

But Trump insisted in a series of Twitter messages on Saturday that federal emergency response teams and the US military, which has sent dozens of ships and some 10,000 troops, were doing a "fantastic" job.

Criticized for devoting more attention to protests by professional football players than to the disaster in the Caribbean, the White House announced Saturday that the president would make a series of phone calls later in the day to officials in Puerto Rico ahead of a visit there on Tuesday.

Trump, in his tweets, sought to lay blame for the island's continuing woes on Democrats, the media and local officials.

After San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz complained in impassioned remarks that, "We are dying here, and I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island," Trump unleashed a tweet rant.

'POOR LEADERSHIP'

"The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump," he wrote.

"Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.

"They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job."

Trump's latest remarks - issued from his luxury golf resort in New Jersey - could further inflame sentiment. His earlier comments questioning who would pay for reconstruction given the territory's financial debt were viewed by some as premature and distasteful, coming as islanders faced existential threats.

The President's tweets drew a scorching response from the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Representative Bennie Thompson, who called them "abhorrent," adding that it was "pathetic that the president has decided to attack - with the not so subtle veil of racism and sexism - those desperately begging for his help".

"Lives are on the line and people are dying," he said.

Trump's suggestion that some Puerto Ricans did not want to work also appeared likely to stoke resentment at a time when many of the island's first responders, desperately working to keep their own families alive, have been unable to join in the larger relief effort.

Puerto Ricans were angered by Trump's delay in finally waiving a US law that bars foreign-flagged ships from delivering aid to US ports. Though Trump had waived the law after hurricanes struck the mainland, he argued that "a lot of shippers" did not want the law waived again.

Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but due to the territory's status do not vote in presidential elections and have no voice in Congress.

FEMA 'WORKING EXTRA HARD'

The Puerto Rican governor, Ricardo Rossello, has been less openly critical of the federal effort than Mayor Cruz. In a briefing Saturday he pointed to efforts by Fema (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to deliver fuel across the island, particularly to hospitals.

"Fema has been working extra hard on this effort," he said, noting that the number of open gas stations had gone in four days from 450 to 714.

His office said Fema had so far delivered 2.5 million litres of water and two million meals; a Fema official added later that a barge carrying 2.4 million litres of water and 1.7 million meals had reached the San Juan port.

Authorities said in a conference call that power has been restored to only 5 per cent of the island; telecommunications to 33 per cent; and water to half of the island.

Bob Kadlec, a US health and human services assistant secretary, said on Saturday that he could not confirm reports of disease outbreaks caused by contaminated water sources, but added that "it would not be unusual."

Across the island, people were continuing to wait for concrete signs of federal and local collaboration - for food, for potable water, for gas, for anything. Some were told it could be weeks, or months, before power is restored.

"Today, I am alone," said 89-year-old Georgina Penalver in the central town of Comerio, who spent her time praying as Hurricane Maria lashed the island, and who has been unable to get through to her eight children in the mainland.

"With God and the Virgin."