Acting Homeland Security Administration Secretary Elaine Duke flew to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico on Friday, reassuring residents the federal government understands the severity of the ongoing human catastrophe facing the U.S. territory.
“I know the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are suffering,” Duke told a news conference in the capital, San Juan. “We are here and we have been here to help them. We are continuing to bring additional supplies and personnel to further assist distribution efforts on the ground.”
Duke’s unannounced trip to the island came hours after the mayor of San Juan ridiculed comments the Homeland Security chief made at a White House briefing Thursday, where she described the life-saving efforts of relief workers as “a good news story.”
In a widely publicized CNN interview, Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz replied angrily, saying, “This is not a ‘good news story.’ This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a life or death story.”
Stung by Yulin Cruz’s barb, Duke made clear that she did not consider the current conditions in Puerto Rico satisfactory.
“Yesterday, I was asked if I was happy and satisfied with the recovery,” she said. “I am proud of the work that’s being done. I’m proud of Americans helping Americans, friends and strangers alike. I am proud of the work DOD, [Department of Defense,] FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Administration] and the territory, along with first responders, are doing.
“The president and I will not be satisfied, however, until every Puerto Rican is back home, the power is back on, clean water is freely available, schools and hospitals are fully open, and the Puerto Rican economy is working,” the secretary said.
In the face of widespread criticism of Washington’s slow response to the Puerto Rico hurricane, the White House is in full damage control mode.
‘It’s all gone’
As he left the White House on Friday for a weekend at his golf club in New Jersey, Trump told reporters the scope of destruction in Puerto Rico dwarfed the damage from hurricanes earlier this month in Texas and Florida. “It was flattened. You don’t just go back and fix it,” he said.
“It’s a very tough situation and a big question is what happens. We have to rebuild. The electric[ity] is gone, the roads are gone, telecommunications [are] gone. It’s all gone, and the real question is what’s going to happen later,” the president said.
Earlier in the day, at a speech to a group of manufacturing industry leaders, he pledged to provide all possible assistance from Washington.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, noting that Washington is sending 10,000 federal personnel, including 5,000 National Guard members.
“We’ve closely coordinated with territorial and local governments which unfortunately aren’t able to handle this catastrophe on their own,” the president said.
Trump and other top administration officials are due to visit the hurricane-ravaged region, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, next Tuesday.
A big obstacle to getting food and supplies to rural areas of Puerto Rico is unclogging the backlogs of desperately needed goods at the country’s ports.
“It’s pretty ugly out there,” Jose Ayala, vice president for Puerto Rico of Crowley, a major shipping company, told The Washington Post. “There is damage to the trucking infrastructure, to the distributors, to the supermarkets, to the roads.
“And then, if your infrastructure is not so damaged, and you can get a driver to the truck, there is no fuel to move the equipment.”
Florida Governor Rick Scott, whose state was also hit by a major hurricane this month, was at the White House on Friday to offer help for Puerto Rico.
“The biggest issue that we’re dealing with right now in Puerto Rico is we need more truck drivers, and we need more trucks,” Scott said after talking to Trump. “We’ve got to get everything out of the port. Whether it’s the fuel, the water. But the biggest thing is the fuel.
Critics say, ‘too little, too late’
A three-star general was named Thursday to head the relief effort, and a 1,000-bed hospital ship, the Comfort, was departing Friday from its home port in the U.S. state of Virginia to assist in the recovery. Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said 44 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals have been restored to operation.
But critics say the response may prove to be a case of too little, too late.
Russel Honore, highly lauded for commanding the military response after another big storm, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the military deployments to Puerto Rico should have been started at least four days earlier.
Honore told National Public Radio that because of its distance from the mainland and the loss of its power grid, Puerto Rico “is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina.”
The head of the U.S. relief effort, Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, said Thursday it would be a long-term project. “We’re bringing in more,” Buchanan told CNN. “This is a very, very long duration.”
Amid the tragedy, Trump said the one bright spot so far is the ability of relief and rescue crews to keep the hurricane-related death toll to a minimum. “The loss of life is always tragic, but it’s been incredible the results we’ve had with respect to loss of life,” the president told reporters Friday. “People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”
Health officials, however, say worse days and weeks may be ahead as authorities battle the massive task of restoring clean water and sanitation, not to mention providing food and shelter for Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people.