SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Confronting Puerto Rico’s devastation nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump highlighted the island’s relatively low death toll compared with “a real catastrophe like Katrina” as he opened a tour of the island Tuesday by focusing on the best of the reviews he and his administration are getting for the federal response.
Trump pledged an all-out effort to help the island but added: “Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
He said his visit was “not about me” but then praised local officials for offering kind words about the recovery effort and invited one to repeat the “nice things” she’d said earlier. Trump also singled out Gov. Ricardo Rossello for “giving us the highest praise.”
“Every death is a horror,” he said, “but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous, hundreds of and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here ... nobody’s ever seen anything like this.”
At one stop in Guaynabo, Trump tossed paper towels into a crowd as he handed out supplies.
In Washington, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., noted that many people in more remote areas still in dire straits and in need of food and water. He told CNN, “Let’s stop talking about the death count until this is over.”
The most prominent critic in Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, attended Trump’s first event, in an airport hangar, shaking Trump’s hand as he went around a table greeting officials before sitting in in the shadow of a hulking, gray military plane.
“How are you?” he asked. Her response could not be heard. He thanked her. Days earlier, Cruz said the Trump administration was “killing us with the inefficiency,” pleading for more effective federal leadership in the crisis.
At least parts of the itinerary were drawn to ensure a friendly reception: Trump was visiting the houses of pre-selected families waiting on their lawns.
The president also handed out flashlights at a church, where 200 people cheered his arrival and crowded around him getting pictures on their cellphones.
While early response efforts were hampered by logistical problems, officials say that conditions, especially in the capital, have improved. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are now more than 10,000 federal officials on the ground on the island, and 45 percent of customers now have access to drinking water. Businesses are also beginning to re-open, with 60 percent of retail gas stations now up and running.
For many, however, Washington’s response isn’t enough. On Monday, the nonprofit relief group Oxfam announced that it would be taking the rare step of intervening in an American disaster, citing its outrage over what it called a “slow and inadequate response.”
Some 95 percent of electricity customers remain without power, including some hospitals.
At least in his first moments on the island, Trump remained focused primarily on drawing praise. “Our country has really gone all out. It’s not only dangerous, it’s expensive. But I consider it a great honor,” he said.
Before leaving Washington, he said Puerto Ricans who have called the federal response insufficient “have to give us more help.”
Large-scale protests against Trump, talked about in advance, failed to materialize by early afternoon, with only a few knots of people gathering around San Juan to decry his criticism of local politicians.
The trip is Trump’s fourth areas battered by storms during an unusually violent hurricane season that has also seen parts of Texas, Florida, Louisiana and the U.S. Virgin Islands inundated by floodwaters and hit by high winds.
Nearly two weeks after the Puerto Rico storm, much of the countryside is still struggling to access such basic necessities as food, fresh water and cash.
Even before the storm hit on Sept. 20, Puerto Rico was in dire condition thanks to a decade-long economic recession that had left its infrastructure, including the island’s power lines, in a sorry state. Maria was the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century and unleashed floods and mudslides that knocked out the island’s entire electrical grid and telecommunications, along with many roads.