With Hurricane Florence threatening a devastating blow to the U.S. mainland, President Trump paused at a Tuesday briefing with FEMA officials to reflect on what he sees as the unqualified success of his administration’s response in Puerto Rico to Hurricane Maria.
“I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful,” Trump said at the White House during a meeting with FEMA administrator Brock Long, Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. “I actually think it was one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.”
The president was responding to a question from a reporter on how his administration would apply the lessons it had learned from Hurricane Maria. The Puerto Rican government revised the death toll from last year’s storm to 1,427, but a team of independent researchers has put the number of deaths related to Maria at 2,975. Trump, however, characterized the administration’s much-criticized relief effort as an “unsung success.”
While boasting that his administration has received “A-pluses” for its handling of hurricanes that hit Florida and Texas last year, Trump also sought to explain why Puerto Rico was different.
“Puerto Rico was actually our toughest one of all because it’s an island, you can’t truck things onto it, everything’s by boat. We moved a hospital into Puerto Rico, a tremendous military hospital, in the form of a ship — you know that. And I actually think, and the governor’s been very nice and if you ask the governor he’ll tell you what a great job. I think probably the hardest one we had by far was Puerto Rico because of the island nature,” Trump said, adding, “Puerto Rico got hit not with one hurricane but with two. And the problem with Puerto Rico is their electric grid and their electric generating plant was dead even before the storms ever hit.”
Upset by what he saw as a lackluster aid response from the Trump administration, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló launched a nonpartisan 501(c)(4) organization in April to try to hold U.S. politicians accountable.
Last October, when the official death toll from Maria was only in the dozens, Trump traveled to Puerto Rico, where he said he was “proud” that Hurricane Maria was not “a real catastrophe” like Katrina, which caused 1,833 deaths when it hit New Orleans in 2005 as a Category 5 storm. President George W. Bush, making a belated visit to the scene of the disaster, praised his FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, with the soon-to-be-infamous phrase, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Sen. Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sensed that Trump had made a similar gaffe Tuesday.
“This is an offensive, hurtful and blatantly false comment from the president,” Schumer said in a tweet. “Nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens died in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. That is the complete opposite of ‘success.’”
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who clashed with Trump multiple times over his response to the hurricane, also cried foul to the president’s remarks on Tuesday.
Success? Federal response according to Trump in Puerto Rico a success? If he thinks the death of 3,000 people os a success God help us all.
— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) September 11, 2018
With the federal response to national disasters presenting each presidential administration with the opportunity to rise or fall in terms of public esteem, Trump used Tuesday’s photo opportunity to show he was taking the threat from the storm seriously, more so than any president before him.
“We are sparing no expense. We are ready as anybody’s ever been. It looks to me, and it looks to all of a lot of very talented people that do this for a living, like this is going to be a storm that’s going to be a very large one — far larger than we’ve seen in perhaps decades,” Trump said. “Things can change, but we doubt they will at this stage, this pretty late stage, which we doubt they are going to be very, very far off course. The places that are in the way and in the most jeopardy would be Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, that area, and again, they haven’t seen anything in what’s coming at us in 25, 30 years — maybe ever. It’s tremendously big and tremendously wet and tremendous amounts of water.”
Still, the comparisons with Puerto Rico continued to rain down.
“Unlike Puerto Rico, they have very strong power companies,” Trump said of the Carolinas. “They are going to do a great job.”
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