The mayor of San Juan lashed out at Trump administration on Friday, decrying its relief effort in the wake of hurricanes Jose and Maria and saying: “If we don’t solve the logistics, we are going to see something close to a genocide.”
“We are dying here,” Carmen Yulín Cruz said at a press conference, speaking with tears in her eyes. “I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics … of an island a mile wide.”
Cruz appealed directly to the president, saying: “So Mr Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives. If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of. Enough is enough.”
The situation in Puerto Rico remains dire as residents face shortages of food, water and fuel. The electric grid was badly damaged by the two storms, leaving many without power and reliant on gas-powered generators. The hurricanes crippled the island’s already weakened waste and water treatment plants while fallen trees and strewn debris block roads and cellphone service remains limited.
Trump and administration figures have sought to emphasise local support for their efforts to send aid. “Fema [Federal Emergency Management Administration] & First Responders are doing a GREAT job in Puerto Rico,” the president wrote on Thursday in a typical tweet. “Massive food & water delivered.”
On Friday he claimed: “Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello just stated: “The administration and the president, every time we’ve spoken, they’ve delivered…” Rosello has praised the federal government’s relief effort, but he told MSNBC: “The response still is not where it needs to be, certainly it’s not.”
Trump has complained that the coverage of the government response has been unfair. But he has faced criticism for raising the issue of the country’s debt crisis as it reels from the impact of two hurricanes.
On Friday, the president praised the relief effort, noting that 10,000 federal workers had been sent to the island along with ships bringing food and water.
“All appropriate departments of our government from homeland security to defense are engaged fully in the disaster,” he said in a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. “And the response and recovery effort probably has never been seen for something like this.”
Referring to logistical challenges of sending aid to the US territory, he said: “This is an island, surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.”
Puerto Rico, he said, was “totally and unfortunately unable” to manage the crisis on its own. “They are working so hard,” he said. “But there’s nothing left. It’s been wiped out. The houses are largely flattened.”
Trump again referred to the island’s debt crisis, saying it would have to work with federal authorities to determine how to pay for a massive recovery effort compounded by “the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island”.
He tweeted earlier: “The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!”
In her conversation with reporters in San Juan on Friday afternoon, Cruz said: “Fema had the gall this morning of asking, ‘What are your priorities, Mayor?’ Well, where have you been? We have no time for patience anymore.
“I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge who is up to the task of saving lives. I am begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying here and you are killing us … with inefficiency and bureaucracy.
“I am done being polite, and I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell because my people’s lives are at stake.”
Continuing to cry, Cruz said: “I’m asking members of the press to send a mayday call. We are dying here. If we don’t solve the logistics, we are going to see something close to a genocide.”
Earlier in the day, Cruz was strongly critical after acting homeland security secretary Elaine Duke said the relief effort in Puerto Rico was a “good news story”. “Dammit, this is not a good news story,” Yulín Cruz told CNN. “This is a people are dying story. This is a life-or-death story.”
Cruz implored Duke to visit the ravaged island. “This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water,” she said. “When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story … I’m sorry. That really upsets me and frustrates me.”
On Friday, Duke traveled to the US territory in a visit planned before her comments drew criticism. She clarified her comments at a press conference, explaining that she meant she was encouraged by the coordination among federal agencies, local government and first responders.
“Clearly the situation here in Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane is not satisfactory,” Duke said. “But together we are getting there and the progress today is very very strong.
“The president and I will not be fully satisfied, however, until every Puerto Rican is back home, the power is back on, clean water is freely available, schools and hospitals are fully open and the Puerto Rican economy is working.”
Trump is due to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday.