WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump gave his administration a "10" on Thursday for its response to the devastation Puerto Rico suffered after back-to-back hurricanes created a situation that the island's governor described as "catastrophic" as he met with Trump at the White House.
More than 80 percent of households in Puerto Rico remain without electricity about a month after Hurricane Maria dealt the island a severe blow. Asked when the 3.4 million U.S. citizens living there could expect power to be fully restored, Trump replied, "It's a very, very good question, actually."
Trump said it will take "a while" to build a new power plant or substantially renovate what was damaged by the storms. The president said most of the power that exists is being supplied by the "massive numbers" of generators he sent to the island.
"There's never been a case where power plants were gone," Trump said, seated alongside Gov. Ricardo Rossello in the Oval Office. "So it's going to be a period of time before the electric is restored."
Trump was also asked by a reporter to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the White House response to Puerto Rico.
"I'd say it was a 10," Trump said. "I'd say it was probably the most difficult -- when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved, you look at the number -- I mean, this was -- I think it was worse than Katrina, it was, in many ways, worse than anything people have ever seen."
Trump said the administration had personnel nearby before the storm hit, ready to go afterward, and that a "fantastic job" was done under the circumstances.
"I would give a 10," he repeated.
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Photos by The Associated Press
Photos by The Associated Press
During a visit to Puerto Rico earlier this month to survey damage, Trump compared what happened there with a "real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, killing hundreds when levees broke and flooded the city. Trump's comment was interpreted by some as minimizing Puerto Rico's suffering at a time when residents were struggling to get food and clean drinking water, and coping without electricity.
"The reality is we still need to do a lot more," Rossello said, adding that that was the reason he was in Washington to meet with Trump. He made a pitch for the federal government to "treat us equally."
Seated beside Trump, Rossello tried to strike an upbeat note despite saying that "it's a catastrophic situation" in Puerto Rico. But, he said, "We are going to beat this. We know we're going to build better than before."
Rossello has been supportive of Trump, saying again Thursday that every request he's made of the president has been answered. The governor, who also met with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said Trump "has been clear that no U.S. citizen will be left behind."
Members of Congress from both parties have criticized the response to Puerto Rico as lackluster compared with the administration's reaction after hurricanes this year in Houston and parts of Louisiana, and later in Florida.
The mayor of San Juan has also been a vocal critic of the response and of some of Trump's comments on Twitter.
Trump said he has given his "blessing" to Congress for a funding plan to help the debt-ridden island pay for the new power station. The electrical grid was in poor shape long before the storm hit.
The president also sought to clarify a tweet from earlier this month that seemed to suggest he was ready to cut off federal assistance to the U.S. territory, saying the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the military and first responders can't stay "in P.R. forever!"
Trump said Thursday that "at a certain point," FEMA and other agencies have to leave the locations where the U.S. goes to help.
"I think the governor understands that FEMA, the military, the first responders cannot be there forever," he said. "And no matter where you go, they cannot be there forever."
During the part of the meeting opened to the media, Trump was joined by Vice President Mike Pence; homeland security adviser Tom Bossert; administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long; and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney.
"I think we did a fantastic job, and we're being given credit," Trump said. "We have done a really great job."
'NOT EATING WELL'
It has been one month since Hurricane Maria slammed into the U.S. territory as a Category 4 storm, killing at least 48 people, destroying tens of thousands of homes and leaving tens of thousands of people jobless.
It was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, with winds just shy of Category 5 force.
"I've never seen anything like this," retired schoolteacher Santa Rosario said as she scanned empty shelves at a supermarket in the capital, San Juan, that had run out of water jugs -- again.
Maria caused as much as an estimated $85 billion in damage across an island already mired in an 11-year recession. That has complicated and delayed efforts to restructure part of a $74 billion public debt load that officials say is unpayable. And it has thrust Puerto Rico's territorial status into the international spotlight, reviving a sharp debate about its political future as the island attempts to recover from flooding, landslides and power and water failures.
Schools remain closed. Traffic lights are not operating. And while nearly 90 percent of supermarkets have reopened, many have rows of shelves empty of goods ranging from water to bananas to canned tuna.
"We're not eating well," said 28-year-old maintenance worker Pedro Lopez as he took a break from cleaning a damaged apartment complex. "It's a lot of white rice and fried eggs."
Near where he stood, massive tree trunks, pieces of zinc roofs and soggy items including mattresses still lined the street -- a scene common across the island.
Less than half of Puerto Rico's cellphone towers are operating, and only 64 percent of bank branches have reopened, some of them with dead outdoor ATMs whose empty screens prompt a roll of eyes from people seeking to withdraw money.
A brown haze has settled over parts of the island as more and more generators are turned on to light hospitals, homes and even the power company itself. In turn, the number of asthma cases and thefts has increased.
Newly precious generators have been stolen from places including a nursing home, an airport cargo terminal and a hospital.
Nearly 5,000 people remain in shelters, with many using rainwater to shower.
"Life has changed dramatically," said Gilberto Del Orbe, 50, who used to install marble and gypsum board. "I've had no work. Everything is paralyzed."
Last week, the House of Representatives passed a $36.5 billion disaster aid package for places including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and now a group of Democratic lawmakers is pushing for tax relief, saying people and businesses in both U.S. territories affected by Hurricane Maria receive unequal treatment compared with U.S. states.
FEMA also has pledged more than $171 million to help restore power across the island, and it has distributed more than $5 million to municipalities in need, as well as $ 1 million to Puerto Rico's National Guard.
Jenniffer Gonzalez, who as resident commissioner is the island's nonvoting member of the U.S. House, said the storm set Puerto Rico back 20 to 30 years, and while generators, food, water and other types of aid are still being flown and shipped to the island, people say it's not enough.
"We lost our home and we lost our car," said Lisandro Santiago, a 42-year-old carpenter who started work just a week ago and was overseeing a crew repairing an apartment complex.
He and his wife, their three children and his mother-in-law are staying in a 13-by-9 foot room that remained unscathed as the hurricane ripped the rest of their home apart in the north coastal town of Dorado.
"I'm leaving Friday for Massachusetts. I can't stay here," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Darlene Superville and Danica Coto of The Associated Press and by John Wagner and Anne Gearan of The Washington Post.
President Donald Trump and Gov. Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico (left) attend a meeting Thursday at the White House along with FEMA Director Brock Long and others.
A Section on 10/20/2017
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