Trump says Puerto Rico aid is 'doing well' as island faces crisis

President Trump took time out from his Twitter tirade against the NFL on Monday night to tweet about the crisis in Puerto Rico, but his message struck some people as tone deaf.

Trump started off by knocking U.S. island for its infrastructure and debt, before declaring that, “Food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well.” Many residents of the island, reeling from Hurricane Maria’s wrath, are struggling to find potable water.

Less than a week after the eye of the Category 4 hurricane barreled through Puerto Rico — destroying homes, flooding streets, and leaving all of the island’s 3.4 million residents without electricity — reports from the ground paint a strikingly different picture than what Trump’s tweet might suggest.

“I don’t want to seem unappreciative of the aid that they’ve been getting so far, but to say that it’s ‘doing well’ is far from the truth and absurd,” said Rosaline Cabrera, a native of San Juan who now lives in Florida. Cabrera, 31, has been able to stay in contact with many of her family members in Puerto Rico, including her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousin, via WhatsApp.

“My family are reporting people are literally pulling over on the side of the roads to try to catch dripping water from the mountains so that they can drink and bathe,” Cabrera told Yahoo News. “They’re desperately trying to find stores that are open and waiting in long lines so that they can get the very basic necessities.”

National Guard soldiers distribute water and food to residents of Puerto Rico, Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo: Carlos Giusti/AP)

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Cabrera’s family’s experience echoes the many stories of devastation and growing desperation coming from the island in the days since Maria struck. Sixty percent of the island is reportedly without water, and officials have estimated that widespread power outages could last up to six months. Food and gas are in short supply, and hospitals are struggling to keep diesel generators running. As of Monday, the official death toll in Puerto Rico had reached 16.

“The biggest challenge they’re facing right now is getting supplies and trying to communicate to other family and friends to see if they’re OK,” Cabrera said of her relatives, who live in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan. “Many roads are impassable, so they’re unable to simply drive to their homes to check. Not only that, but gas is in such high demand and limited.”

“On one night, my family waited three hours in line to get gas that was capped to $15 per person,” she added. “They waited in a two-hour line for ice so that they could attempt to preserve any dairy products they still had in their fridge before it spoils.”

Across social media, critics pushed back against Trump’s tweet and argued that those without potable water were not “doing well.”

As of Monday evening, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency told NBC News that the federal government had dispatched more than 10,000 people — including 700 FEMA employees — to assist with recovery efforts in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. FEMA has also reportedly provided 12,000 emergency roofing kits, 1.1 million liters of water, and more than 1.5 million meals to the battered islands.

FEMA and the White House have insisted that the federal response to Puerto Rico has been no different than the relief provided to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas or Irma in Florida. Yet significant structural barriers — including damages to Puerto Rico’s roads, airfields and seaports — have slowed the distribution of supplies, leaving people in more remote areas feeling hopeless and forgotten.

“Hysteria is starting to spread,” Jose Sanchez Gonzalez, the mayor of Manatí, a town on the northern coast, told the Associated Press. “The hospital is about to collapse. It’s at capacity. We need someone to help us immediately.”

In Arecibo, another coastal city nearly 70 miles from San Juan, the New York Times reported that residents have been trying to collect rain in lieu of promised water deliveries.

“I have one water truck; I need 10,” David Latorre, Arecibo’s emergency management director told the Times. “It was an odyssey to find food. We had to break down doors to get it. The food system collapsed.”

Drivers negotiate a flooded road in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)

Following Trump’s tweets Monday night, Puerto Rican officials took to cable news to urge the federal government to step up its response.

“This is unprecedented and we’re gonna need more help,” Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossillo said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” He called for Congress to take action on approving an aid package or risk causing “a humanitarian crisis,” with “thousands if not millions of Puerto Ricans flocking to the United States.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz echoed Rossillo’s concerns about Puerto Rico’s “humanitarian crisis” on CNN’s “New Day,” highlighting the “near-death conditions” facing many of the island’s elderly residents in particular. 

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“The aid is starting to come in, and that is making people feel like we’re not alone and we can make it,” Cruz said. Though he said the FEMA personnel working in Puerto Rico “have been wonderful,” Cruz made clear that “we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands right now and we must one, pull together, two, be able to set up all the logistics for the distribution of all the aid.”

A subsequent tweet by the president suggested which part of Cruz’s comments made an impact on Trump.

After announcing that the president would travel to the storm-ravaged U.S. territory next week, the White House issued a press release stating that Trump had also moved to increase federal funding 100 percent for debris removal and emergency protective measures in Puerto Rico. At joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at the White House Tuesday afternoon, Trump continued to defend his administration’s response to the latest natural disaster.

“Everyone has said it’s amazing the job we’ve done in Puerto Rico,” Trump said. “We’re very proud of it.”

(Cover tile photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)


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