SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Touring a small slice of Hurricane Maria's devastation, President Donald Trump congratulated Puerto Rico on Tuesday for escaping the higher death toll of “a real catastrophe like Katrina” and heaped praise on the relief efforts of his administration without mentioning the sharp criticism the federal response has drawn.
“Really nothing short of a miracle,” he said of the recovery, an assessment at odds with the despair of many still struggling to find water and food outside the capital city in wide swaths of an island where only 5 percent of electricity customers have power back.
The governor of Puerto Rico said late Tuesday that the official death toll has been increased to 34 from 16.
In the heart of San Juan, in fact, a few miles from the air base where Trump gave his thumbs-up report on progress, people stacked sewage-fouled clothes and mattresses outside houses and businesses lacking electricity nearly two weeks after the storm.
Trump pledged an all-out effort to help the island while adding, somewhat lightly, “Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that's fine. We've saved a lot of lives.”
Local officials caution that any accounting of death and destruction is far from complete as people suffer secondary effects from thirst, hunger and extreme heat without air conditioning. As for Katrina, as many as 1,800 people died in 2005 when levees protecting New Orleans broke, a toll in lives and property that took years to understand.
“Every death is a horror,” he said, “but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous, hundreds of and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody has ever seen anything like this.” He told local officials “you can be very proud of all your people, all of our people working together.”
Trump's most prominent critic in Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, joined other officials at the air base for a briefing with him, shook the president's hand and said afterward she hoped he now understood the gravity of the situation. But his comment implying Maria was not a Katrina-level event left her unsure.
“Sometimes his style of communication gets in the way,” she told CNN. “I would hope that the president of the United States stops spouting out comments that really hurt the people of Puerto Rico.”
At least parts of the president's itinerary were drawn to ensure a friendly reception: Trump visited the houses of selected families waiting on their lawns.
In the upscale Guaynabo neighborhood, one of the fastest to recover, 200 people cheered Trump's visit.