White House says it's done 'the best we can' on hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended the Trump administration’s response to last year’s hurricanes in Puerto Rico Tuesday. Sanders said the government’s reaction “was at a historic proportion” in response to a question from Yahoo News about whether President Trump still felt he deserved a perfect score for handling the damage in light of a new study that estimated nearly 5,000 people died in the storm’s aftermath.

“The federal response once again was at a historic proportion. We’re continuing to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do the best we can to provide federal assistance, particularly working with the governor there in Puerto Rico, and will continue to do so,” Sanders said.

Sanders ignored a follow-up question about whether the White House had “any concern” about the death toll.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last Sept. 20, shortly after the island had already been damaged by Hurricane Irma. The double blows left wide swaths of Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory, without electricity or clean drinking water. These conditions continued for months and, as of now, with a new hurricane season underway, about four percent of the island’s residents still lack power and water.

A Harvard study released last month estimated that 4,645 people died from the conditions that followed the storms, but the researchers said it could be as few as 800 or as many as 8,500; the estimate was approximately the midpoint of that range. Others, including the government of Puerto Rico and the New York Times, have estimated about 1,000 people died in the aftermath of the storm.

The official death toll from the storm is 64.

Residents signal to helicopters that they need water during recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria, near Ciales, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 7, 2017. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Residents signal to helicopters that they need water during recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria, near Ciales, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 7, 2017. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Slideshow: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria >>>

In light of the death toll estimates and the long delay in bringing power and water back to the island, the administration’s recovery efforts have come under criticism. One of Trump’s most persistent critics in Puerto Rico has been San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. Yahoo News asked Cruz about Sanders’s comments on Tuesday, and the mayor said the death toll shows the federal hurricane response was “inadequate.”

“The fact is that the Trump administration’s bureaucracy and neglect created a climate of inefficiency that cost lives. Their inability to meet our needs and their lack of empathy continues to be responsible for the slow pace of our recovery,” Cruz said, adding, “If they think they did everything they could, they are admitting they did not do enough. They cannot acknowledge the hundreds and thousands dead because those lost souls are irrefutable proof of their inadequate response.”

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, did not respond for a request for comment on this story.

Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it would provide additional disaster assistance for Puerto Rico. However, many FEMA crews and contractors have been departing the island. Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress, Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, had asked FEMA to keep the crews in place. She cited the areas that remain without power and recent blackouts on the island as proof that Puerto Rico has not recovered enough to face the current hurricane season, which began June 1. She said the island’s power grid is “unstable” and called the situation “alarming.”

Additional reporting by David Knowles

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