Recovery slow but steady in Puerto Rico as fed plans for billions in recovery costs

“At the moment of any disaster, needs are at 100 percent while the response is at a zero point.” Peter Van Buren

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with local residents during a walking tour of areas damaged by Hurricane Maria in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, U.S., October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — President Donald Trump expressed satisfaction on Tuesday with the federal response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, despite criticism that the government was slow to address the crisis and two weeks later much of the island’s residents are still without power.

Trump, who has grappled with hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the past six weeks, said at a briefing that the disasters are straining the budget.

“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,” he said. “And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”

Trump visited Puerto Rico to reassure the island’s struggling residents that he is committed to their recovery. The economy of the U.S. territory, home to 3.4 million people, already was in recession and its government filed for bankruptcy before it was hit by the worst hurricane in 90 years.

The storm wiped out the island’s power grid, and less than half of residents have running water. It is still difficult for residents to get a cell phone signal or find fuel for their generators or cars. While Trump was warmly received by many, not all were happy to see him.

“You are a bad hombre,” said a hand-lettered sign in pink marker held by a woman along his motorcade route.

Peter Van Buren, a 25-year state department veteran, says disasters are never the same and Puerto Rico being an island makes things tougher. He said discontent is exacerbated in the immediate aftermath when communication is poor, damage is being assessed and resources are being diverted to the most critical first, like hospitals and emergency response needs.

“A disaster destroys in hours infrastructure that took decades to build,” said Van Buren. “Millions of people lose the services that separate a middle-class suburb from an impoverished slum – clean water, sewers, power, hospitals, roads. And Maria was the strongest storm to strike the area in 80 years… At the moment of any disaster, needs are at 100 percent while the response is at a zero point. The response starts in deficit. It always looks grim, especially to participants and outside observers unfamiliar with the process. They want what is a marathon to play out like a sprint.”

One of the first people Trump met when he and his wife, Melania, touched down in San Juan,Puerto Rico, was the city’s mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has repeatedly blasted Trump as showing insufficient concern about the U.S. territory’s plight.

Trump shook hands with Cruz after his arrival but he saved his warm words of praise for other local and federal authorities.

“Right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics,” he said of Puerto Rico Governor Richardo Rossello.

Rossello had refused to join Cruz’ criticism saying his only focus was on the territory’s recovery. On Monday he reported progress in getting fuel supplies to the island, with more than 720 of the island’s 1,100 gas stations now up and running, and more will open back up in the coming days.

During the visit, Trump and the first lady met survivors of the disaster in the nearby town Guaynabo, walking down a street and talking to several families whose homes were damaged. The sidewalks were piled with debris.

“Their drivers have to start driving trucks,” he said at the White House. “So on a local level, they have to give us more help. But I will tell you, the first responders, the military, FEMA, they have done an incredible job in Puerto Rico.”

The White House is preparing a $29 billion disaster aid request to send to the U.S. Congress after the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida this season, a White House official said on Tuesday.

The request is expected to come on Wednesday. It will combine nearly $13 billion in new relief for hurricane victims with $16 billion for the government-backed flood insurance program, the White House official told Reuters.

The White House wants Congress to forgive $16 billion of the debt that the National Flood Insurance Program, which insures about 5 million homes and businesses, has racked up.

The request comes as the program is close to running out of money, congressional aides said. The program had racked up nearly $25 billion in debt before this season’s major hurricanes.

The Trump administration is also proposing more than a dozen reforms including new means testing and an extreme-loss repetition provision, aides said. Some homes insured under the program have gotten payments repeatedly from the program after multiple storms.

“We’re expecting to hear from the administration as early as tomorrow perhaps, maybe Thursday, for more relief for hurricanes for Puerto Rico, for Florida, for Texas,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said. “These hurricanes were exceptional and that means we’re going to have to have more response to fill the FEMA accounts and some other accounts.”

Also on Tuesday, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission proposed making available as much as $76.9 million to fund repairs of communication networks and restore communications services in Puerto Rico. Nearly 90 percent of cell sites remain out of service.

Puerto Rico could also receive $1 billion in additional Medicaid funding. Republicans who lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee requested $1 billion for the territory to help fill the gap in medical care when hospitals were wiped out in the hurricane. The request is part of a separate bill to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It is scheduled to be considered and voted on in committee on Wednesday.