Trump told Puerto Ricans they could be "proud" more people did not die in Hurricane Maria as had in a "real catastrophe." In a trip to the island, he also called rescue workers' efforts "nothing short of a miracle."
In a statement made during his visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump said that the US territory could be "very proud" of the low death count in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which slammed the island two weeks ago. He simultaneously implied that the natural disaster that killed 34 people, left millions without power and many without food and water was not a "real catastrophe."
"If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and you look at what happened here with a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody's ever seen anything like this," the president said. His comments came before a Puerto Rico official more than doubled the death toll from 16 to 34.
Hurricane Katrina killed 1,836 people in the United States in 2005.
Trump also pointed out that the hurricane damage in Puerto Rico required the US to spend federal money on disaster relief.
"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," Trump said. "And that's fine. We've saved a lot of lives."
The White House is preparing to ask Congress to approve a request for $29 billion (24.6 billion euros) in disaster aid for people affected by the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas.
Trump's visit to the island was intended to quell criticism of the US government's response to Maria's devastating toll on the island. Puerto Ricans have accused Trump's government of a delayed response and of treating the island's 3.4 million inhabitants as second-class citizens. Trump, in turn, has blamed local leaders for the slow recovery.
The president's five-hour-long trip to the island drew mixed responses from US and Puerto Rican politicians.
"I don't remember the president telling Texas that they threw our budget out of whack after Harvey, or Florida after Irma," top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said, referring to hurricanes that hit the US mainland in 2017.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who had engaged in a Twitter spat with Trump at the end of September, tweeted that the president's visit had been "productive" and expressed optimism about improved communication with White House staff.
However, in an interview with CNN, Cruz also labeled Trump as the "miscommunicator-in-chief."
A whirlwind tour of a wind-whirled island
After the president and first lady Melania Trump arrived at Muniz Air National Guard Base, some 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) east of San Juan, Trump toured the well-off suburb of Guaynabo, which escaped Hurricane Maria's powerful winds and lashing rain relatively unscathed. Trump met with residents and inquired about their homes, most of which are made of more sturdy materials than in poorer neighborhoods.
Moody's rating agency on Tuesday estimated Maria’s total cost to Puerto Rico, including lost output, at $45 billion to $95 billion and significant relief from the federal government would be required.
When asked about the many people still without power, food and water, Trump praised rescue workers' efforts, "Again the job that's been done here is really nothing short of a miracle."
AP reported that in the nearby neighborhood of Playita, residents have yet to see federal emergency officials since Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20 and are still struggling to clean up housing debris and sewage.
Around a dozen protestors stood outside San Juan's Convention Center, where the government headquarters its recovery operations and which is near to the base Trump visited.
Still, other Puerto Rican residents praised the president for his visit.
"We've never had a president who's visited after a disaster like this," 70-year-old Playita resident Lucy Falero told AP. "One has to congratulate the president for his motivation."
cmb/sms (AFP, AP)