SAN JUAN – US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that authorities in Puerto Rico should be praised for keeping down the loss of life from Hurricane Maria, which is blamed for 16 deaths on the island.
“Sixteen versus in the thousands,” Trump said, comparing the Maria death toll with the “thousands” who perished in 2005 as a result of “a real catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina.”
Katrina killed 1,833 people, mostly in catastrophic flooding that followed the failure of the levees in New Orleans.
“You can be very proud of your people and all of our people working together,” the president said on his first visit to Puerto Rico since Maria struck on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 hurricane that knocked out power, water and telecommunications service.
Some 12,000 civilian federal workers and a much smaller number of US military personnel are in Puerto Rico to deliver aid and assist with relief efforts, though many have criticized Washington for taking too long to ramp up the response to the devastation.
One of those critics has been San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, whose complaints prompted Trump to attack her on Twitter for “poor leadership.”
Even so, the president and the mayor shook hands during Tuesday’s visit, when Trump again raised the issue of what Puerto Rico’s recovery will cost and how to pay for it.
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” he said. “Because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, but that’s fine. We have saved a lot of lives – every death is a horror.”
Trump, who was accompanied by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chief Brock Long, met with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello and other officials.
The president also planned to take a helicopter flight over the island to survey the damage from Maria and to confer with the three-star general he appointed earlier this week to oversee the relief effort.
Fewer 10 percent of Puerto Rican households have electricity nearly two weeks after the hurricane struck.
The storm has added greatly to the woes of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents, who have endured a decade-long recession made worse by austerity policies imposed to deal with the island’s $72 billion in debt.