Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island of Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump touched down for the first time and immediately downplayed the devastation.
“Every death is a horror,” Trump began, before comparing Puerto Rico’s official death toll of 16 to “a real catastrophe, like Katrina,” in which more than 1,800 people perished from the 2005 storm that ravaged New Orleans.
Just hours earlier, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló warned reporters that he expected the death toll to climb. After Trump departed, he announced the death toll had risen to 34.
Trump’s post-storm visit checked all the boxes: He was briefed by local and federal officials, toured a residential neighborhood to speak to locals about storm damage and doled out emergency supplies at a church. He did it all while lauding the disaster relief response.
“The job that has been done here really is nothing short of a miracle,” Trump said.
Earlier in the day, he offered his administration an A+ grade for its disaster relief efforts in Texas and Florida, adding that Puerto Rico was right up there with them.
In his visit to Calvary Chapel, Trump applied his typical showmanship to the normally staid task of distributing emergency supplies.
“I’ve never seen that before,” he remarked, as he held aloft canned meat. He lobbed rolls of paper towels into the crowd as if he were tossing out free t-shirts at a football game.
At one point, he handed out flashlights. “You don’t need them anymore,” the President remarked. By Tuesday, power had been restored to less than 7% of Puerto Rico.
Magnitude of devastation
Local officials had hoped to impress upon the President the magnitude of the devastation. Puerto Rico’s governor had printed out photos of destruction from across the island to give Trump a better sense of the scope. He said efforts to rebuild this US territory would only be successful with a robust federal aid package.
More than half the island still doesn’t have access to drinkable water or telecommunications systems. The power grid will have to be almost entirely rebuilt.
The price tag was already on Trump’s mind, too.
“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,” Trump said, during a briefing on relief efforts Tuesday. “That’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
After days of touting his administration’s response — and taking aim at the mayor of San Juan — Trump appeared prepared to bury the political hatchet Tuesday, inviting Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz to join him for a briefing.
Shortly after meeting her, he pivoted to lavish praise upon Rosselló.
“I just want to tell you that, right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics. He didn’t play it at all. He was saying it like it was, and he was giving us the highest grades,” Trump said.
He made no mention of the San Juan mayor.
The President’s comments about the budget and comparison of Hurricanes Maria and Katrina didn’t sit well with her. The mayor dismissed Trump’s “foul communication” in an interview with CNN’s Leyla Santiago Tuesday afternoon.
Yulín Cruz said the most productive portion of the day came when the cameras flickered off — a meeting with White House staff.
“I truly believe that they finally saw the connection — or the disconnect — between what they were hearing on the one hand and the reality of what is happening on the ground,” Yulín Cruz said.
View from the ground
All told, the President’s visit to Puerto Rico lasted about four-and-a-half hours, less time than many Puerto Ricans have spent waiting in line for gas in recent days.
The trip was met with some eye rolls from locals anticipating Trump would see the recovering city of San Juan and pat himself on the back for a job well done.
Others didn’t have the bandwidth for that brand of cynicism. When asked about Trump’s proclamations that the government was doing a “fantastic” job, they mainly expressed concern that the President would fail to the grasp the severity of the crisis they continue to face.
“At least in this part of town, we haven’t seen no military. We haven’t seen nobody coming,” said Edwin Hernandez, a 32-year-old resident of the impoverished coastal town of Loíza. “I don’t know if they forgot about us.”
Hurricane Maria ripped the roof off the Hernandez household. Ever since, Edwin, his wife and his two daughters, ages four and five, have been huddling in one room at night. They patched that portion of the roof with scraps they found in the neighborhood.
“They’re treating us like we’re not citizens,” Hernandez said of the government’s response so far. “Many of our ancestors, our soldiers, went to war and died for the country. And just cause we’re apart, don’t mean we’re not citizens.”
There’s no power and only intermittent access to drinkable water in Loíza. No one’s cell phone works. The neighbors said they needed FEMA’s help. But what were they supposed to do, put in an application online?
Even as some banks and grocery stores reopened, lines stretched hundreds of people long. Hernandez waited in both to buy his daughters Ensure nutrition shakes to keep them somewhat satiated.
“I just tell them that it’s gonna get better,” Hernandez said, his eyes, red-rimmed from crying, as one of his daughters clung to his leg. “We believe in God. We believe we’re gonna get back up.”
Near the eastern tip of the island, Elba Bonano said she had seen only a single aid truck pass through her neighborhood as of Monday.
“They gave you a couple bottles of water and they gave you Skittles … and tuna fish and that’s it,” she said.
She and her neighbors were helping one another gut and clean their homes. Nearly everything inside was destroyed by Maria’s floodwaters, which climbed nearly six-and-a-half feet up the walls.
Her biggest worry in the next few weeks was a simple one: “An epidemic,” Bonano said.
She and her neighbors have been piling debris and spoiled food in a lot across the street. There was no sign of trash trucks yet. In the oppressive humidity, mosquitoes were beginning to swarm.
“We help each other,” she said. “And I hope Donald Trump helps us. I’d be glad if he helps us.”
Bonano didn’t have a chance to deliver her message directly to the President. He didn’t pass through her neighborhood, some 34 miles outside of San Juan.
By Tuesday evening he was back on Air Force One touting his administration’s relief efforts once again.
“We’ve only heard thank yous from the people of Puerto Rico,” the President said, as he jetted back to Washington.