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Trump reignites hurricane feud with Puerto Rican officials

While President Donald Trump claimed that his administration did a “great job” in Puerto Rico, recovery efforts on the island are ongoing even as the scale of Hurricane Maria’s toll has only recently become clear. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo

The president is spending nearly as much time re-litigating his response to Hurricane Maria as he is warning about Florence.

Updated

President Donald Trump on Wednesday ratcheted up his fight with Puerto Rican officials, dwelling on the intense criticism he received last year for his response to Hurricane Maria, even as Hurricane Florence threatens millions of Americans on the East Coast.

Trump has been aggressive this week in warning Americans in Florence’s path to take the proper precautions, while hailing his government as being “absolutely totally prepared” for the potentially historic storm.

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But he has spent almost as much time claiming he hasn’t gotten enough credit for his response to Hurricane Maria last September, despite the fact that thousands of Puerto Ricans died in the storm’s aftermath as the island territory struggled to cope with widespread devastation and power outages.

“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning.

Puerto Rican officials are also hitting back at Trump, renewing feuds that escalated last year even as the island was trying to provide shelter, water and healthcare for millions of people impacted by the storm.

Though Trump claimed Tuesday that Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló would celebrate the “incredible unsung success” of the hurricane relief efforts on the island, Rosselló firmly rebuked Trump’s remarks in a statement later in the day, claiming petitions to the Trump administration for recovery assistance and emergency housing remain unanswered.

“This was the worst natural disaster in our modern history. Our basic infrastructure was devastated, thousands of our people lost their lives and many other struggle,” Rosselló said in a statement.

The governor of the territory — whose residents cannot vote in presidential elections — also used the opportunity to highlight the inequalities between the mainland and Puerto Rico. Rosselló has long advocated for Puerto Rican statehood.

“No relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called ‘successful’ because Puerto Rico lacks certain inalienable rights enjoyed by our fellow Americans in the states,” he said.

Democrats on the mainland were also quick to shoot down the president’s remarks as insensitive and inaccurate. Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer condemned Trump’s comments on Twitter. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) accused the Trump administration of diverting almost $ 10 million from FEMA to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The document Merkley released revealed that the funds came from FEMA’s budgets for travel, training, public engagements and information technology, and the Department of Homeland Security denies that any of the money came from disaster relief. Still, the optics of any funds being diverted to ICE fueled several Democratic lawmakers’ call for the agency’s abolition for its role in Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long said Wednesday that the diverted money has “no impact on our efforts to be prepared for Hurricane Florence.”

“It’s just unfortunate we have a congressman that’s playing politics on the back of Florence,” Long said of Merkley, who is a senator. “There’s no story there.”

It would not be the first federal agency to divert funds for Trump’s border policy, though — the Department of Health and Human Services also came under fire for dipping into its budget to manage families separated as a result of the heightened border enforcement.

While Trump claimed that his administration did a “great job” in Puerto Rico, recovery efforts on the island are ongoing even as the scale of Hurricane Maria’s toll has only recently become clear. A recent report sponsored by the Puerto Rican government showed nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the storm, a figure much higher than the prior official death toll of 64, which the federal government maintained for months.

Efforts to distribute food and supplies in the wake of the storm were marred by logistical difficulties. Power outages on the island lasted for months in some locations.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz – the target of Trump’s Wednesday morning tweet — has streamed criticisms of Trump’s comments from her Twitter account this week, pointing out that of 2,431 applications to FEMA for funeral assistance, only 75 have been approved.

In the immediate wake of the storm, Cruz was outspoken in her criticism of the president, who visited the island in the days after the storm passed and was videotaped flipping rolls of paper towels to a crowd who had gathered to see him. Trump and Cruz feuded openly, with the mayor calling the president’s visit to the island “insulting” and Trump saying Cruz showed “poor leadership.”

Cruz, in an interview with Newsweek published on Tuesday, called the federal government’s response a “stain for FEMA and Trump’s reputation.”

Later on Tuesday, she tweeted, “Pres Trump thinks loosing [sic] 3,000 lives is a success. Can you imagine what he thinks failure looks like?”

Donald Trump in the Oval Office

Long also defended the agency’s performance following Maria on Wednesday, blaming the island’s poor infrastructure for delays and power outages. He argued that FEMA is not responsible for creating and managing public utilities and public needs like power and food are covered by the private sector. Long added that FEMA is the largest employer in Puerto Rico and is rebuilding the “backbone” of the island’s infrastructure.

“We kept Puerto Rico from total collapse as a result of Maria,” Long said. “The amount of money and the effort that’s being put into Puerto Rico, it’s going to be a wonderful place.”

Merkley, however, countered that several officials he’s spoken to told him that they are rebuilding the island’s power grid in the same, insecure fashion as before the storm, setting Puerto Rico up for another power failure.

“They said, ‘Yep, we know this is a very stupid way to rebuild the power grid, because we are building it the same way it was,'” he said. “What I’d like to hear, what I think the American people would like to hear is FEMA and other agencies saying, ‘What can we learn from Puerto Rico, from the Virgin Islands, from Texas so that we can do it better this time around.'”

The Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria followed closely on the heels of its recovery efforts in Texas and Louisiana following Hurricane Harvey, which created historic amounts of flooding in Houston and devastated communities along the Gulf Coast. Although damage from the storm was extensive, the Trump administration earned generally positive reviews for its Harvey recovery efforts.

A POLITICO investigation found that the Trump administration’s response to Harvey was faster and greater, at least initially, than its response to Maria.

In a video posted on Twitter Wednesday morning, Trump said emergency services are prepared for Florence, which is expected to make landfall later this week somewhere in the Carolinas. He warned his Twitter followers to be prepared and listen to local authorities, adding that with “mother nature, you never know. But we know.”

“We’re fully prepared, food, medical, everything you can imagine, we’re ready. They say it’s as big as we’ve seen coming to this country, and certainly to the East Coast as they’ve ever seen,” Trump said. “We’ll handle it. We’re ready. We’re able. We’ve got the finest people, I think, anywhere in the world.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross cut short a trip to Europe and canceled meetings with European Commission officials and business groups to return to Washington to oversee the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center.

Mandatory evacuations have already been ordered for parts of the coast in Virginia and North and South Carolina, and the Outer Banks are bracing for serious damage. “Don’t bet your life on riding out this monster,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned Tuesday. The governor issued the “first-of-its-kind” mandatory evacuation for barrier islands during a news conference on Tuesday.

The Southeast coastline is expected to see historic storm surges, and inland flooding that could be catastrophic.

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