SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – President Donald Trump hailed his administration on Tuesday for a “really good job” helping Puerto Rico recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, despite complaints that federal aid has been too slow to reach the U.S. territory.
Trump agreed to boost federal disaster aid to the island, increasing funding to assist with debris removal and emergency protective measures. He said he would visit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 3.
Critics and some of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents accused the U.S. government of having been slower to respond with water, food and electric grid repairs than it would have been on the mainland, even though the island’s people are U.S. citizens.
Maria roared ashore last Wednesday as the most powerful hurricane to strike the island in almost 90 years, cutting all power and destroying homes and infrastructure. It was the third major hurricane to hit the United States in less than a month, following Harvey in Texas and Irma in the Caribbean and Florida.
“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, mindful that the last Republican president, George W. Bush, faced widespread criticism for his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 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 responded inadequately, 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.
The administration has about $5 billion remaining in a disaster relief fund and Congress has already approved another $7 billion in funding that will become available on Oct. 1, said an aide to the House Appropriations Committee.
About 44 percent of Puerto Rico’s population currently lacks access to clean drinking water, the U.S. Defense Department said.
FEMA said in a statement that 7 million meals and 4 million liters of water were on the way to the island by barge. The agency had previously shipped more than 4 million meals and 6 million liters of water to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it said.
‘NOBODY HAS COME’
Many residents were still 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 the capital, 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 criticized Trump for keeping the focus on the island’s $72 billion in debt, referring to tweets by Trump on Monday.
“You don’t put debt above people, you put people above debt,” she told CNN.
Puerto Rico, which has struggled for years economically, filed the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history this year.
Many structures on the island, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded.
Singer Marc Anthony, whose family is from Puerto Rico, joined the criticism of Trump, saying he should stop dwelling on a controversy involving National Football League players and the national anthem.
“Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico. We are American citizens too,” he tweeted.
Trump told reporters he was able to focus on both the NFL issue and Puerto Rico.
Charitable donations to Hurricane Maria relief efforts appeared sharply down compared to early donations for Hurricane Harvey aid, several charities and charity trackers said.
Six days after the storm hit, officials were still taking stock of what was expected to be a months-long effort to rebuild the power system, meaning many people will be without electricity for an extended period.
Puerto Ricans resigned themselves to a long wait for basic services to return, but few doubted the U.S. 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.”
Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland, David Shepardson, Idrees Ali, Susan Cornwell, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Laila Kearney and Stephanie Kelly in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Howard Goller and Frances Kerry