President Donald Trump cleared the way Thursday for more supplies to head to Puerto Rico and tweeted that relief was getting through, but on the island food and water remained scarce in devastated towns where a growing number of people decried the federal response as an uncoordinated disaster.
Nine days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Trump issued a 10-day waiver of federal restrictions on foreign shipments of cargo to the island. And House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief account would get a $6.7 billion boost by the end of the week.
The developments came after Trump came under sharp criticism for what critics said was a too-slow response to a humanitarian crisis among Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents.
"The federal response has been a disaster," said lawmaker Jose Enrique Melendez, a member of Gov. Ricardo Rossello's New Progressive Party. "It’s been really slow."
He said the Trump administration had focused more on making a good impression on members of the media gathered at San Juan’s convention center than bringing aid to rural Puerto Rico.
"There are people literally just modeling their uniforms," Melendez said. "People are suffering outside."
Trump and his advisers defended the administration’s response to the hurricane, which destroyed much of the island’s infrastructure and left many residents desperate for fresh water, power, food and other supplies.
"The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot. Large numbers of generators are now on Island. Food and water on site," Trump tweeted early in the day. But in many cases "on site" meant stored on pallets and in containers in sea- and airports far from the towns where Puerto Ricans desperately lined up for fresh water and pre-made meals being distributed by federal officials.
"I have not received any help, and we ran out of food yesterday," said Mari Olivo, a 27-year-old homemaker whose husband was pushing a shopping cart with empty plastic gallon jugs while their two children, 9 and 7, each toted a large bucket. They stood in line in a parking lot in the town of Bayamon on the hard-hit northern coast, where police used hoses to fill up containers from a city water truck.
"I have not seen any federal help around here," said Javier San Miguel, a 51-year-old accountant.
Bayamon Mayor Ramon Luis Rivera said FEMA officials sent a truck with a limited amount of food on Monday. Rivera said he began distributing it to hard-hit rural areas.
"I don’t wait," he said when asked whether federal officials helped with distribution.
Meanwhile, in the nearby fishing town of Cataño authorities said they would open a distribution point over the weekend to hand out food and water, nearly two weeks after the hurricane hit.
"We need food," said Maritza Gonzalez, a 49-year-old government worker.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said she signed the waiver of a federal law to clear the way for foreign-flagged ships to deliver supplies between U.S. ports. The nearly century-old measure, known as the Jones Act, has bolstered the U.S. shipping industry but made consumer goods much pricier and scarcer in this U.S. territory than on the mainland.
"You are seeing devastation in Puerto Rico. That is the fault of the hurricane," Duke told reporters in the White House driveway. "The relief effort is under control."
Meanwhile, the U.S. military was sending a three-star general to Puerto Rico to help direct the hurricane response. Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North, was to arrive later Thursday to assess the situation so that the military can provide the highest level of support for the disaster, Northern Command spokesman John Cornelio said.
He said there were still problems getting supplies and aid to residents on the island, where 12 of the 29 bridges that have been assessed were closed, and another 65 were damaged.
Cornelio also said that the number of open gas stations has increased from about 400 to 676. FEMA officials said a million meals and 2 million liters of fresh water had been distributed in Puerto Rico and 2 million more meals and 2 million more liters of water were on the way.
Presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said 10,000 government workers, including more than 7,000 troops, were helping Puerto Rico recover.
The Department of Homeland Security’s acting administrator of the region that includes Puerto Rico said that distribution had been hampered by the destruction of roads and bridges, which made it hard to get supplies to those in need.
"In addition to building that first line of the supply chain, we are also rebuilding the entire distribution system ... how we’re going to deliver commodities and resources to the people of Puerto Rico," acting administrator John Rabin told reporters in the capital, San Juan. "We have often had to recreate the system in order to deliver food, water and commodities throughout the island."
Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, said the impression of a slow response isn’t so much wrong as it is outdated. He said more than 40 of the island’s 69 hospitals were now accepting patients. And FEMA Administrator Brock Long said the efforts have been hampered by damaged airports and ports on the island.
"The question is that last mile," Long told CNN, speaking of the difficulty of getting aid all the way to those in need.
Meanwhile, Ryan announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief account would get "a huge capital injection” of $6.7 billion by the end of the week to help Puerto Rico recover. He noted that Trump had waived a matching funds requirement, which means the cash-strapped island won’t have to contribute to the initial costs of the federal assistance. The Wisconsin Republican said he expects the Trump administration to send Congress a request for a long-term recovery package once damage assessments are conducted.
"We will quickly act on that request," Ryan said.
Duke, the acting homeland security secretary, had waived the Jones Act earlier this month to help ease fuel shortages in the Southeast following hurricanes Harvey and Irma. That order included Puerto Rico but expired last week, shortly after Maria struck.
The Trump administration initially said a waiver was not needed for Puerto Rico because there were enough U.S.-flagged ships available to ferry goods to the island.