President Donald Trump‘s assertion that the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria was “an incredible, unsung success” fell flat in Puerto Rico, where islanders are still struggling to recover from the devastating storm a year later.
“I was indignant,” said Gloria Rosado, a 62-year-old college professor who watched the president’s news conference on TV late Tuesday from San Juan and was still fuming the next day. “The image of my dead husband immediately came to my mind … as well as all the lives that were lost.”
Rosado’s husband, who was hospitalized for respiratory and renal complications and ultimately suffered a heart attack, was one of the estimated 2,975 people who died in the Category 4 storm’s aftermath when medical resources were strained beyond the breaking point.
For many, Trump’s boast about “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done” was hard to square with their daily reality: Blackouts remain common; nearly 60,000 homes are covered by only a makeshift roof not capable of withstanding a Category 1 hurricane; and 13 percent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service.
“Nobody is singing his praises because we all saw what happened,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told The Associated Press. “He wasn’t up to the task…and the way that he neglected our lives gave permission to other people in his administration to look the other way.”
Cruz criticized Trump in a series of tweets, including one that said, “If he thinks the death of 3,000 people (is) a success God help us all.”
That reignited a longstanding feud between the mayor and Trump, who fired back calling her “totally incompetent” and saying the U.S. government “did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico.”
A July report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, noted several shortcomings in its response, including that it underestimated how much food and water would be needed after the storm and that not enough Spanish-speaking aid workers were deployed to the island.
At the same time, the agency also faced challenges that were arguably beyond its control such as the sheer force of the monster storm and the logistical difficulties of reaching the Caribbean island over a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) away from the mainland.
And many residents say local officials share much of the blame. Puerto Rico’s government has acknowledged that its emergency plans were designed for a Category 1 hurricane, as well as failures to follow those plans and communications breakdowns.
Ramon Ruiz, a 56-year-old business owner whose father died from heart problems on Thanksgiving after riding out the hurricane alone at home, pressed up against the door to keep it from caving in, is among those who say both local and federal authorities were slow to act.
“If it wasn’t for the churches and private organizations, we truly would not have received help from anyone,” Ruiz said. “They are treating us like second-class citizens. … If we were another state, the response would have been much faster.”
In Maria’s aftermath, according to FEMA data analyzed by the AP, approvals for individual assistance checks in Puerto Rico were slower compared with what happened with large storms last year. From Sept. 30 to Oct. 7, not one of those checks was approved. On Oct. 8 the approvals began rolling again, but with a large spike suggesting a backlog.
In addition, data from the U.S. Small Business Administration indicate that approvals for disaster loans in Puerto Rico were slow — the first one was not approved until 15 days after the storm was declared, four times as long as with Hurricane Harvey.
For Maria, there was a large gap between when the first loan was approved and when loans started ramping up. While 25 percent of Harvey loans were OKed within 42 days, for Maria, that didn’t happen until Jan. 9, more than three months after the storm hit.
Overall, compared with Harvey and Irma, Maria saw more funds loaned to homeowners rather than business owners.
Islanders have also been angered by recent discoveries of supplies that never got delivered. A photo that emerged Tuesday of thousands of water bottles abandoned on a runway in eastern Puerto Rico prompted local officials to say Wednesday that they were opening an investigation.
Ottmar Chavez, the new secretary of the island’s General Services Administration, said at a news conference that Puerto Rican officials requested the water from the U.S. government and were supposed to pick it up in late May. He said some of it was distributed but people complained that it smelled bad. He added that it was unclear why the remainder sat on the runway for nearly four months.
Shortly after Maria hit last year, Trump visited Puerto Rico and was widely criticized for tossing paper towels to storm victims in a manner seen by many as insensitive to the scope of the disaster.
His latest remarks once again dredged up those same hurt feelings.
“I ignore them because none of them make sense,” said Michelle Cruz, a 48-year-old airline worker whose mother died in December from septicemia after contracting an infection in a hospital during surgery after Maria. “It bothers me and it hurts. But I don’t pay attention to him.”
Data journalist Angeliki Kastanis reported from Los Angeles. Videographer Chris Gillette contributed to this report.