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Saturday, September 30, 2017

San Juan Mayor Rebukes Trump Administration for Rosy Comments on Relief Effort - The New York Times

"SAN JUAN, P.R. — In the storm-battered neighborhood of Barriada Figueroa on Friday, neighbors greeted visitors with a now-familiar question, one that was inevitably followed by a disappointing answer: “Are you FEMA?”

Hurricane Maria had ripped walls and metal roofs from the brightly colored homes in this working-class neighborhood in central San Juan. Nine days after the storm hit, putrid water still lay stagnant in the streets.

Aida Perez, 73, gave a tour of her house, pointing to the holes in her roof and ceiling. She said she could use a tarp. And food. And money. But no federal officials had been spotted yet.

“After Georges, FEMA came, the Red Cross came, and they came rapidly,” she said, referring to Hurricane Georges, the 1998 storm that caused extreme damage here, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The slow pace of the federal response to Hurricane Maria — and the upbeat portrayal of the response by federal officials, including President Trump — threatened this week to become an embarrassment and political liability for the administration as it scrambled to confront a natural disaster that has overwhelmed this island, and presented breathtaking logistical challenges.

On Friday evening, Mr. Trump again repeatedly praised his government’s response to the Puerto Rico hurricane during remarks to reporters before leaving for his New Jersey club for the weekend.

“It’s going really well, considering,” Mr. Trump said. He added: “We’ve made tremendous strides. Very tough situation.” Later, he said, “People can’t believe how successful it’s been.”

But the disconnect between what officials in Washington were saying and the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico was captured on live television by the response of the mayor of San Juan when she was played a clip of the acting Homeland Security secretary, Elaine Duke, saying that she was “very satisfied” with the government’s response. Ms. Duke called it “a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place.”

The retort from Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz: “This is, damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a ‘life or death’ story. This is ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.”

Mr. Trump’s political adversaries quickly pounced on what they said was evidence of a lack of interest or urgency on the part of the president. And some saw an echo of the comments made in 2005 by former President George W. Bush, when he praised then-FEMA head Michael Brown for doing “a heck of a job” in the midst of what was widely seen as a slow and botched recovery effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“The problem is, and this is what felled the Bush administration: images tell the whole story,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who served as a communications director and senior adviser for former President Barack Obama. “You had Trump on Twitter saying one thing, and then you have the images all over cable news telling a different story.”

Peter Feaver, a national security official for Mr. Bush during Katrina, said there were many similarities between Hurricane Maria and the 2005 storm, each of which hold lessons for Mr. Trump and his team.

“There are echoes to it that should concern the White House,” Mr. Feaver said. “They would be wise that they not take it for granted that they can avoid that image stamped on this episode.”

“What matters more is the perception than the reality,” Mr. Feaver added. “The best after-action histories did not condemn Bush as vividly as the immediate media framing.”

The administration is unquestionably facing a daunting task. The hurricane knocked out nearly all of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, and most of its cellular service. Roads are damaged, bridges have collapsed, and an unknown number of Puerto Ricans are stranded in the hills and hollows of the mountain interior without access to water or food.

Representatives of the commonwealth government stationed outside the capital have taken to driving to San Juan in person to present their progress reports. On Friday, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló said that the government would begin commandeering and giving away at least 3,000 containers of cargo stuck at the Port of San Juan, much of it meant for the island’s supermarkets, if the stores themselves could not move the merchandise."

San Juan Mayor Rebukes Trump Administration for Rosy Comments on Relief Effort - The New York Times

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