President Trump patted himself on the back Tuesday for an “incredibly successful” job done in Puerto Rico, where the government estimates that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria last year.
Speaking from the White House, Mr. Trump sought to assure the public that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready for Hurricane Florence, which is currently heading toward the Carolinas, saying, “We are ready as anybody has ever been.”
He boasted that the federal government got excellent grades for its disaster response in Texas and Florida, but he complained that the even better job done in Puerto Rico had been ignored. “I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success,” Mr. Trump said.
He noted that the United States military sent a “tremendous military hospital in the form of a ship” to the island. That ship, however, was largely underused. Prepared to support 250 hospital beds, it admitted an average of only six patients per day, or 290 in total, over its 53-day deployment.
“I actually think it is one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Mr. Trump said of the federal government’s response. He also falsely stated that the island’s electric grid and generating plant “was dead” before Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria struck within weeks of one another.
The grid was poorly maintained and in terrible condition, but it is not the case that “it was largely closed,” or that “when the storm hit, they had no electricity, essentially, before the storm,” as the president stated.
Electricity was not restored to every customer on the island until a few weeks ago. The director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said that about a quarter of the $3 billion in repairs, which were paid for by the federal government, would probably have to be redone.
“If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all,” said Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, in a post on Twitter.
Jose Andrés, a Spanish chef who organized an emergency feeding program on the island after Maria — and butted heads with federal authorities while doing so — said the president’s comments were “astonishing.”
“The death toll issue has been one of the biggest cover-ups in American history,” Mr. Andrés said in an interview. “Everybody needs to understand that the death toll was a massive failure by federal government and the White House. Not recognizing how many people died in the aftermath meant the resources and full power of the government was taken away from the American people of Puerto Rico.”
He stressed that the failures spread to food and water distribution.
FEMA acknowledged the shortcomings in a report released in July. The agency said it was caught with empty warehouses and few qualified staff to attend to the disaster, brought the wrong type of satellite phones to the island, and did not have truck drivers to deliver aid from the port. FEMA said that days went by without “situational awareness” of what was happening outside.
Michael Byrne, the federal coordinating officer for Puerto Rico, said FEMA was committed to reducing bureaucracy and creating better programs.
“I think one of the most courageous things FEMA has done is to be honest and frank in the after action and say, ‘We need to work on these areas,’” he said in an interview last month. “And we’re going to. We’re going to get better.”
He said among the areas that needed to be improved was the process to inspect damaged homes. Many of the 300,000 homes damaged in the storm are still covered by canvas.
“Anyone who flies in to Puerto Rico may notice the amount of blue tarps as they are landing, and that is only a small representation of the rest of the municipalities,” said Amarilis González, a former English teacher who founded Toldos Pa’ Mi Gente, or Tarps for My People, a group that collected house coverings. “If that is a ‘success,’ I do not understand the concept.”