GUAYNABO (Puerto Rico) • US President Donald Trump has told Puerto Rico officials they should be "proud" that only 16 people died when Hurricane Maria hit their island, compared with the "thousands" killed in "a real catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina".
"Sixteen versus in the thousands," Mr Trump said on Tuesday, comparing the storm's certified death toll to the 1,833 killed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. "You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.
"If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and what happened here with a storm that was just totally overbearing."
Later that day, Governor Ricardo Rossello announced the death toll had more than doubled: "This morning, we were at 16; now, 34 have been identified. He said the deaths included drownings, injuries from homes collapsing as well as people on respirators who died because there was no power.
Touring the US territory on a trip designed to quiet criticism of his administration's response to the disaster, Mr Trump and his wife Melania visited the middle-class suburb of Guaynabo, walking among trees and signs felled two weeks ago by Maria's jet-blast winds. He shook hands with storm survivors, posed for photos and stopped at a church along the way to shoot rolls of paper towels basketball-style into a crowd snapping pictures on their cellphones.
"I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you threw our budget a little out of whack, but that's fine," Mr Trump said. He also suggested that the US$74 billion (S$100 billion) government debt accumulated by bankrupt Puerto Rico would need to be wiped clean to help the island recover from the devastation.
"We are going to work something out. We have to look at their whole debt structure," Mr Trump said in a Fox News interview. "You know they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street. We're gonna have to wipe that out. That's gonna have to be - you know, you can say goodbye to that. I don't know if it's Goldman Sachs but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that."
Sixteen versus in the thousands... You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, on Puerto Rico's death toll from Hurricane Maria, against the 1,833 killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The President's visit was carefully choreographed to avoid any embarrassing protests. Along the route of his motorcade, a single sign declared him a "bad hombre". A dozen protesters could be seen in front of San Juan's Convention Centre, where the government established their operations. Later, Mr Trump surveyed the damage from the air before landing on the USS Kearsarge to greet servicemen.
The White House is preparing a US$29 billion disaster aid request to send to Congress after hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, an administration official said on Tuesday.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES