Acting Homeland Security Administration Secretary Elaine Duke flew over hurricane devastated Puerto Rico Friday and reassured residents the federal government understands the severity of the ongoing human catastrophe facing the U.S. territory.
“I know the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are suffering,” Duke told a news conference in the capital, San Juan. “We are here and we have been here to help them. We are continuing to bring additional supplies and personnel to further assist distribution efforts on the ground.”
Duke’s unannounced trip to the island came hours after the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, ridiculed comments the Homeland Security chief made at a White House briefing Thursday, where she described the life-saving efforts of relief workers as “a good news story.”
In a widely publicized CNN interview, Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz replied angrily, saying, “This is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a life or death story.”
Clearly stung by Yulin Cruz’s barb, Duke made clear that she did not consider the current conditions in Puerto Rico satisfactory.
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“Yesterday I was asked if I was happy and satisfied with the recovery,” she said. “I am proud of the work that’s being done. I’m proud of Americans helping Americans, friends and strangers alike. I am proud of the work DOD, (Department of Defense, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the territory, along with first responders are doing.
“The president and I will not be 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,” the secretary said.
EPA assessing Superfund sites
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that it has deployed assessment teams to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“We have begun re-assessing Superfund sites, oil sites, and chemical facilities in Puerto Rico and the USVI as part of EPA’s response to Hurricane Maria,” the agency said.
It said that its initial assessments found the Superfund sites to have no significant damage. The agency is also working to assess the conditions of water and sewage treatment plants in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In the face of widespread criticism of Washington’s slow response to the Puerto Rico hurricane, the White House is in damage-control mode.
‘You don’t just go back and fix it’
As he left the White House Friday for a weekend at his golf club in New Jersey, Trump told reporters the scope of destruction in Puerto Rico dwarfed the damage from hurricanes earlier this month in Texas and Florida.
“It was flattened. You don’t just go back and fix it,” he said.
“It’s a very tough situation and a big question is what happens. We have to rebuild. The electric(ity) is gone, the roads are gone, telecommunications (are) gone. It’s all gone, and the real question is what’s going to happen later,” the president said.
Earlier in the day, at a speech to a group of manufacturing industry leaders, he pledged to provide all possible assistance from Washington.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, noting that Washington is sending 10,000 federal personnel, including 5,000 National Guard members.
“We’ve closely coordinated with territorial and local governments which unfortunately aren’t able to handle this catastrophe on their own,” the president said.
Trump and other top administration officials are scheduled to visit the hurricane-ravaged region, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, next Tuesday.
Critics say ‘too, little, too late’
A three-star general was named Thursday to head the relief effort, and a 1,000 bed hospital ship, the Comfort, departed Friday from its home port in the U.S. state of Virginia to assist in the recovery. Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said 44 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals have been restored to operation.
But critics say the response may prove to be a case of too little, too late.
Russel Honore, highly lauded for commanding the military response after another big storm, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the military deployments to Puerto Rico should have been started at least four days earlier.
Honore told National Public Radio that because of its distance from the mainland and the loss of its power grid, Puerto Rico “is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina.”
The head of the U.S. relief effort, Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, said Thursday it would be a long-term project.
“We’re bringing in more,” Buchanan told CNN. “This is a very, very long duration.”
Amid the tragedy, Trump said the one bright spot so far has been the ability of relief and rescue crews to keep hurricane-related death toll to a minimum.
“The loss of life is always tragic, but it’s been incredible the results we’ve had with respect to loss of life,” the president told reporters Friday. “People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”
Health officials, however, say worse days and weeks may still be ahead as authorities battle the massive task of restoring clean water and sanitation, not to mention providing food and shelter for Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people.
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