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Trump breaks silence, blames Puerto Rico for humanitarian disaster

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President Trump finally broke his silence on the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico this week with a series of tweets in which he appeared to blame the island for its own misfortune.

“Texas & Florida [which suffered damage during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma] are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he tweeted on Monday night. “It’s [sic] old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well.”

By Tuesday morning, Trump appeared to have shifted gears, thanking San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz for her reported gratitude in the face of limited aid.

“Thank you to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, for your kind words on FEMA etc. We are working hard. Much food and water there/on way,” he wrote.

Trump’s response came after several days of silence on the matter; Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory without full voting rights, is home to some 3.4 million U.S. citizens. Battered by Hurricane Maria last week, the island has since been plunged into darkness, with 85 percent of power lines down and residents unable to find cellular reception or, in many areas, potable water. At least 15 people have died, with many more unaccounted for and scores of residents stranded across the island.

While federal emergency funds have been activated for the island and the Army Reserve and National Guard have deployed some 4,000 and 1,600 members respectively, Puerto Rican officials have been begging for an increase in aid. Current relief efforts simply aren’t enough, they say.

“We still need some more help. This is clearly a critical disaster in Puerto Rico,” Governor Ricardo Rosselló told the Washington Post Sunday night. “It can’t be minimized and we can’t start overlooking us now that the storm passed, because the danger lurks.”

Despite the ongoing devastation, up until Monday night, Trump’s attention seemed to be elsewhere. Over the weekend, the president tweeted extensively about the NFL, targeting a protest initiated last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality. The president devoted much of his weekend to criticizing Kaepernick’s actions — most notably calling anyone who chose to join the protest a “son of a bitch” — and choosing not to weigh in on the situation in Puerto Rico.

That clear display of priorities hasn’t gone over well with Puerto Ricans, many of whom are still unable to access basic necessities after Maria. The heavily indebted island has long been forced to rely on the much wealthier mainland to provide aid and assistance, as all its attempts at statehood have been ignored by Congress. That dependency has left many Puerto Ricans feeling helpless and skeptical in the face of disaster.

“The U.S. has never really given us the attention it gives the states,” college student Natalia Porrata told Bloomberg. “And I don’t think this will be any different.” With her municipality destroyed, Porrata said she worried the mainland’s apathy would persist despite the island’s dire circumstances.

U.S. airline companies also drew residents’ ire after several carriers advertised one-way ticket prices well over $1,000, leaving many passengers stranded. Rafael Juliá Jr., whose elderly father is battling cancer on the island and relies on a respirator, expressed outrage over the ticket debacle in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel.

“I cannot believe how a company can do that to people who are suffering,” Juliá said. “I have no words in English to express how angry I am.”

Some have also directed their frustrations at Puerto Rican officials. “This is historic,” Alfred Rodrigo Maldorado told NPR of the storm. “But what’s really historic is the absence of our government.”

Officials themselves appear focused on obtaining aid, though they admit there were problems lingering long before the hurricane made landfall. Still, when asked about Trump’s critical tweets on Tuesday, Governor Rosselló emphasized the island’s need for help and pushed focus back to his people.

“A lot of those things are true,” said Rosselló, acknowledging Trump’s comments about Puerto Rico’s debt. “There’s collapsed infrastructure, energy grid that was old, not well-maintained. Now it’s a matter of logistics, and it’s a matter of executing and doing it in a proper and safe way so that people can get the resources.”
San Juan’s mayor, Yulin, was also pointed in her remarks. “You don’t put debt above people — you put people above debt,” she said. “Let’s deal with the two issues in a separate way, because there is a humanitarian crisis.”

Trump announced Tuesday morning that he would be visiting the Puerto Rico in a week, potentially stopping in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are also recovering from Maria, as well as from Hurricane Irma.

“It’s very, very tough because it’s an island,” the president said, referring to the limited relief efforts. “The difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean — and it’s a big ocean, a really, really big ocean.”

“Puerto Rico is very important to me,” Trump added. “The people are fantastic. I grew up in New York so I know many Puerto Rican people.”

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