Washington (AFP) – US President Donald Trump, under fire for his response to the storms that ravaged Puerto Rico, announced Tuesday that he will visit the hurricane-battered island next week.
“I’m going to Puerto Rico on Tuesday,” Trump told reporters at the White House, signalling that October 3 was the first date he could go without interfering with recovery efforts.
“Those people are very important to all of us,” the president said. “We have shipped massive amounts of food and water and supplies.”
“We have worked very, very hard in Puerto Rico. It’s very tough because it’s an island,” he said.
Trump’s announcement came amid accusations that his administration has failed to pro, vide the same urgent level of assistance to Puerto Rico that it gave to storm-battered Florida and Texas.
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 taken much of the heat himself after tweeting repeatedly over the weekend about American football players kneeling during the national anthem while failing to mention Puerto Rico.
– ‘We are American citizens too’ –
Puerto Rican-born singer Marc Anthony 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 unprecendented 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.”
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.
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.
– Disaster declaration –
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.
Trump did declare Puerto Rico a disaster zone last week, making it eligible for federal assistance, and he broke his silence with a series of tweets late Monday.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” Trump tweeted.
“Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well. #FEMA,” he said.
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 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.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders also dismissed the critics.
“We’ve done unprecedented movement in terms of federal funding to provide for the people of Puerto Rico and others that have been impacted (by) these storms,” Sanders said.
“We’ll continue to do so and continue to do everything that we possibly can under the federal government to provide assistance.”
Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, pledged more congressional help on Tuesday.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Ryan said. “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.”