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Trump warns Puerto Rico weeks after storms: Federal help cannot stay ‘forever’

  • Author: Peter Baker, Eileen Sullivan, The New York Times
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published October 12, 2017

In an image released by the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, the commander of Joint Task Force Puerto Rico, and soldiers from the Puerto Rico National Guard, unload a helicopter carrying relief supplies in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, Oct. 11, 2017. President Donald Trump suggested again on Thursday that Puerto Rico bore some of the blame for its current crisis following twin hurricanes, and that there were limits to how long he would keep troops and federal emergency workers on the island to help. (Department of Defense via The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump suggested again Thursday that Puerto Rico bore some of the blame for its current crisis following twin hurricanes, and that there were limits to how long he would keep troops and federal emergency workers on the island to help.

Trump, who has been criticized for a slow and not always empathetic response to the storms that ravaged the U.S. territory, sounded off in a series of early-morning tweets. Angry about the criticism, he has sought to refocus blame to where he believes it belongs — the leadership of the island itself, which in his view mismanaged its affairs long before the winds blew apart its infrastructure.

" 'Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.' says Sharyl Attkisson," he wrote, citing the host of a public affairs show on Sinclair Broadcast Group television stations. "A total lack of accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend. We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!"

Hurricane Maria’s devastation can be seen at El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, Oct. 6, 2017. The forest hosted 240 species of trees, with 23 of those found nowhere else, and one forestry expert said it might take a century to recover. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/The New York Times)

Puerto Rico was already facing deep financial troubles before Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept across the island, knocking out many basic services. As of earlier this week, nearly three weeks after Maria hit, 84 percent of the island remained without electricity, two-thirds of cellphone towers were down, only 392 miles of the 5,073 miles of roads were open and about 6,000 people were still in shelters.

Trump has alternately praised the federal response and expressed frustration that so much has been required. Unlike after hurricanes struck Texas and Florida, he has complained that Puerto Rico was ruining the federal budget, and he mounted a caustic attack on the mayor of San Juan, the capital, when she complained that the island needed more help.

Puerto Rico, which was struggling with a debt crisis before the storms hit, may run out of money by the end of the month, and Trump on Tuesday asked Congress for a $4.9 billion loan to help pay its most pressing obligations amid warnings that it would not be able to pay teachers and health care providers. That comes after Trump already requested $29 billion for storm recovery efforts.

The interior contents of a home are seen from the air during recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria near Utuado, Puerto Rico, October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The president's expression of impatience with the length of the recovery effort, now just three weeks old, stood in contrast to the federal investment after prior storms. A former official in the George W. Bush administration noted that the federal government kept at least some military in New Orleans for nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and that the government took more than five years for recovery efforts overall.

"It's fairly typical for FEMA, DHS and other executive agencies to be on the ground running recovery operations for years to come," said James Norton, the former official, who worked at the Department of Homeland Security under Bush. "I would expect them to be operating in Texas and Florida for the next couple of years."

Critics of the president said he had been stingy in his public comments about Puerto Rico compared with Texas or Florida.

"There is this view that, somehow, we don't merit that level of concern or attention or respect from this government," Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the New York City Council, said even before the Thursday morning tweets. "Somehow, we're a burden and we're mooching. That's the kind of language this president is throwing around."

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