US President Donald Trump defended the government relief response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico on Tuesday and said he would visit the island next week.
Trump also said that he would travel to the US Virgin Islands, another US territory in the Caribbean that was slammed by a pair of powerful storms.
“Both have been devastated, and I mean absolutely devastated,” the president told reporters at a joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
“Puerto Rico got hit by two hurricanes,” he said. “And they were among biggest we’ve ever seen.”
Puerto Rico was facing a “long and very, very difficult restoration process,” Trump said, and relief efforts were complicated by the fact that it is an island.
“It is on an island in the middle of the ocean,” Trump said. “You can’t just drive your truck there.”
Rejecting accusations Puerto Rico has not received the same level of assistance as storm-hit US states Florida and Texas, Trump said a “massive relief effort is underway.”
He said he had ordered all relevant agencies and the military to do “everything in their power” to help residents of Puerto Rico.
“We are unloading on an hourly basis massive loads of water and food and supplies for Puerto Rico,” Trump said, adding that he would visit there on Tuesday.
– ‘Life or death’ –
Puerto Rico, a US territory in the Caribbean, was hit by successive hurricanes — Irma and Maria — which have left most of the Spanish-speaking island of 3.4 million without running water, electricity and communications.
Food, water and fuel are scarce and Puerto Rican officials and residents have issued increasingly desperate appeals for help.
“It’s life or death,” Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, said Tuesday.
“People are really dying,” the mayor of the city of nearly 400,000 people told CBS News. “There are people that have had no food and no water for 14 days.”
Trump has come under fire for tweeting repeatedly over the weekend about American football players kneeling during the national anthem while failing to mention Puerto Rico.
Singer Marc Anthony, who was born in New York of Puerto Rican parents, told Trump in a tweet with an expletive thrown in to stop talking about the National Football League and “do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico.”
“We are American citizens too,” Anthony said.
Appealing for “swift action” from the Trump administration and US Congress, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello also felt the need to issue a reminder — twice — that Puerto Ricans are US citizens.
“What Puerto Rico is experiencing after Hurricane Maria is an unprecedented disaster,” Rossello said in a statement. “The devastation is vast.
“We are collaborating with the federal government in emergency response and have received a tremendous outpour of solidarity from people all over the nation,” he said.
“But make no mistake — this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million US citizens,” he said. “We will need the full support of the US government.
“People cannot forget that we are US citizens — and proud of it.”
– ‘A disgrace’ –
While US citizens, residents of Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico are not allowed to vote in US presidential elections and the island has only a non-voting representative in the US Congress.
Trump on Tuesday dismissed charges he neglected Puerto Rico while spending too much time on the anthem controversy.
“I wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL,” he said. “Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work.”
Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, was among those urging more federal government help for stricken Puerto Ricans.
“The crisis for these Americans needs more attention — and more urgency from the executive branch,” Sasse said in a tweet.
Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, condemned the Trump administration’s response to the crisis as “wholly inadequate.”
“A territory of 3.5 million American citizens is almost completely without power, water, food and telephone service, and we have a handful of helicopters involved in (the Pentagon’s) response,” he said.
“It’s a disgrace,” Smith added.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has shrugged off the criticism and said there are more than 10,000 federal staff on the ground in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands providing help.
Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, pledged more congressional assistance.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Ryan said Tuesday. “This is our country and these are our fellow citizens.
“They need our help and they are going to get our help,” he said. “They’re going to get the kind of support and aid that Texas and Florida have enjoyed.”