SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump praised his administration on Tuesday (Sept 26) for "doing a really good job" with disaster relief for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, discounting complaints that aid has been slow to reach the US island territory.
Trump agreed to boost federal disaster assistance, ordering increased funding to be made available to assist with debris removal and emergency protective measures. He also said he would pay a visit on Oct 3 to Puerto Rico, as well as to the US Virgin Islands, a neighbouring Caribbean territory struggling to recover from two major hurricanes in a single month.
Democratic leaders in Congress and some residents in Puerto Rico have accused the Republican administration of being more sluggish in its response than it would to a disaster on the US mainland, even though Puerto Rico's 3.4 million inhabitants are US citizens.
The criticism was heightened by a series of Twitter messages by Trump on Monday about hurricane damage on Puerto Rico in which he also referred to the island's US$72 billion (S$97.5 billion) debt crisis and bankruptcy.
"Much of the Island has been destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with," he tweeted.
Maria roared ashore Puerto Rico last Wednesday as the most powerful hurricane to strike the island in nearly a century, knocking out the territory's entire electrical grid, unleashing severe flooding and causing widespread heavy damage to homes and infrastructure.
The storm has claimed more than 30 lives across the Caribbean, including at least 15 in Puerto Rico. It was the third major hurricane to hit the United States in less than a month, following Harvey in Texas and Irma, which ranked as the most powerful Atlantic storm on record, before thrashing several Caribbean islands and Florida.
Maria was downgraded to a tropical storm on Tuesday, far off the coast of North Carolina. "We've gotten A-pluses on Texas and in Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico," Trump told reporters in Washington. "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 visited Texas and Florida after Harvey and Irma.
The last Republican president, George W. Bush, faced widespread criticism for his administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina, which killed some 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 fallen short in its response, that the then-Fema head, Michael Brown, was doing a "heckuva job".
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the island needed 1,000 to 1,500 additional security personnel and at least another 200 generators, as well as fuel for them. He urged Trump to propose an aid package to Congress in the next day or two. "With all due respect, President Trump, relief efforts are not 'doing well,'" Schumer said.
White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney countered that US disaster-relief spending sufficient to last through mid-October has been appropriated.
"We are picking up most of the cost right now in Puerto Rico," he told reporters in Cleveland. "We are not penny-pinching in any fashion. We are taking care of folks."
The administration has about US$5 billion remaining in a disaster relief fund, and Congress has already approved another US$7 billion in funding that will become available on Oct 1, according to a House Appropriations Committee aide.
Six days after the storm hit, much of the island remains inaccessible, communication is difficult and fuel is in short supply. US Air Force Colonel Michael Valley, helping with the relief effort, said supplies have been flowing into the island at the rate of one airplane load per hour since Friday, but distribution remained a problem.
"The extent of the damage in the centre of the island is not known yet because there are still a lot of roads that are impassable," he said in San Juan, the capital. About 44 per cent of Puerto Rico's population currently lacks access to clean drinking water, and the majority of the island's 69 hospitals are without electricity or fuel needed for generators, the US Defence Department said.
Fema, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that 7 million meals and 4 million litres of water were en route to the island by barge. The agency had previously shipped more than 4 million meals and 6 million litres of water to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it said. Fema also has opened distribution centres in 12 cities in Puerto Rico and at 12 locations in the Virgin Islands to provide food, water and other commodities, the agency said.
Still, many residents were struggling to get basic essentials. "We've not seen any help. Nobody's been out asking what we need or that kind of thing," said Maria Gonzalez, 74, in the Santurce district of San Juan. Help appeared to be reaching parts of the city, she said, pointing to Condado, a tourist area powered by generators while other San Juan streets fall into darkness at dusk.
"There's plenty of electricity over there, but there's nothing in the poor areas," Gonzalez said.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz strongly criticised Trump for focusing on the island's financial woes in his tweets. "You don't put debt above people, you put people above debt," she told CNN.
Officials were still taking stock of what was expected to be a months-long effort to rebuild the island's power system, and many residents seemed resigned to a long wait for basic services to return. But few doubted the US government had the ability to bring the island back to its feet quickly. "If they wanted to fix things fast, they could do it," said Carlos Arias, 41, as he waited in a line of people snaking around a block in San Juan to fill up a canister with gasoline."It's a question of will."