President Donald Trump pledged to help Puerto Ricans recover basic necessities and security in Maria’s ruinous aftermath as his homeland security chief tried to escape a tempest of her own making, set off when she called Washington’s response to the hurricane a “good-news story.”
Elaine Duke, the department’s acting secretary, drew a sharp rebuke from San Juan’s mayor for seeming to play down the suffering.
“When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good-news story,” Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told CNN on Friday. “Damn it, this is not a good-news story. This is a people-are-dying story.”
Trump said he was not aware of Duke’s remark.
“I haven’t heard what she said,” he told reporters. “I can tell you this: We have done an incredible job considering there’s absolutely nothing to work with.”
Yet even in voicing solidarity and sympathy with Puerto Rico, he drew attention again to the island’s pre-hurricane debt burden and infrastructure woes, leaving doubt how far Washington will go to make the U.S. territory whole.
Earlier he tweeted: “The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!”
Duke visited the island Friday, surveying the ravaged landscape by helicopter in an hourlong tour and driving from the airport past still-flooded streets, twisted billboards and roofs with gaping holes. She met local officials and federal personnel on the ground, and tried to move on from remarks that stunned people in Puerto Rico a day earlier.
During this season’s trio of monster hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Maria — Trump and his administration have drifted into the perilous territory of premature self-congratulation in the face of unfolding catastrophe, seemingly unmindful of the “Brownie moment” that scarred George W. Bush’s presidency.
Bush famously told his emergency management director, Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” during what proved to be a tragically inept federal response to deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Trump has repeatedly boasted about the positive reviews he said his administration is getting from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for its relief effort, even as people in remote towns struggle to find food, water and other basics. Then Duke said before leaving Washington that the federal relief effort was a “good-news story” because of “our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths.”
“Let me clarify,” she said Friday upon her arrival in San Juan. She said she meant “it was good news that people of Puerto Rico and many public servants of the United States are working together.”