Trump warned: send helpor risk making Puerto Rico crisis ‘your Katrina’

President to visit Puerto Rico next week to see damage wrought by Hurricane Maria as governor warns island is on brink of humanitarian crisis

Donald Trump will visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday, to see some of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria on the lives of 3.5 million Americans. As the president announced the visit, however, one Democratic congresswoman who was born in Puerto Rico warned that his lack of attention to the disaster so far risked making it your Katrina.

The White House said on Tuesday Trump had also made additional disaster assistance available, by authorizing an increase in the level of federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures.

But it took the president five full days to respond to the plight of the US territory. When he finally did so on Monday night, his comments on Twitter were so devoid of empathy it threatened to spark new controversy.

Hot on the heels of the billowing dispute he single-handedly provoked over African American sporting figures protesting against racial inequality during the national anthem, Trump effectively blamed the islanders all of whom are American citizens for their own misfortune.

Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble, Trump wrote. The US territory was hit by Maria soon after the two states were struck by Harvey and Irma.

Trump acknowledged that much of the island was destroyed but caustically went on to say that its electrical grid was already in terrible shape and that Puerto Rico owed billions of dollars to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.

The following morning, the president spoke to reporters at the White House before a bipartisan meeting on tax reform. Next Tuesday would, he said, be the earliest feasible day to visit the island, due to the extent of the damage. The island has been literally destroyed, Trump said, expressing confidence theyll be back. The people of Puerto Rico are important to all of us, he said.

Federal authorities were landing relief supplies on an hourly basis, Trump said, adding that he will also stop in the US Virgin Islands, also severely damaged.

Later, at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, he denied that he had been preoccupied with the NFL issue, insisting that the government has had tremendous reviews for its response, which now includes the military. We understand its a disaster, its a disaster that just happened, he told reporters. The grid was in bad shape before the storm and Puerto Rico didnt get hit by one hurricane; it got hit by two hurricanes; and they were among the biggest weve ever seen.

We are unloading on an hourly basis massive loads of water and food and supplies for Puerto Rico. And this isnt like Florida where we can go right up the spine or Texas where we go right down the middle and distribute; this is a thing called the Atlantic Ocean, this is tough stuff. The governor has been so incredible in his statements about the job were doing: were doing a great job.

Trump added for emphasis: Everybody has said its amazing the job weve done in Puerto Rico. Were very proud of it and Im going there on Tuesday.

Trumps Monday night tweets were the first comments he had made on Puerto Rico since hours before Maria made landfall as a category 4 hurricane, pummelling the island and destroying its entire power network with winds up to 155mph (250km/h). On that occasion he told the people of Puerto Rico: We are with you.

But for many Puerto Ricans the reality five days after the hurricane struck was that the US president had not been with them. About 700 Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) staff were on the island in a total of 10,000 federal workers, carrying out search and rescue missions and supplying basic food and water. But Trump spent those five days mired in his self-made battle with African American sports stars, seemingly oblivious to the plight of millions of Hispanic Americans in peril in a natural disaster zone.

At the same time that he was doing all of that, we had American citizens in Puerto Rico who are in a desperate condition, said Hillary Clinton, Trumps defeated opponent in the 2016 election, in a radio interview which aired before Trumps late-night tweets on Monday. He has not said one word about them, about other American citizens in the US Virgin Islands. Im not sure he knows that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.

The Trump administration has refused to waive federal restrictions on foreign ships carrying life-saving supplies to Puerto Rico a concession it readily made for Texas and Florida in the cases of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

In the last of his tweets on Monday night, Trump said food, water and medical are top priorities and doing well. On Tuesday morning, while continuing to tweet about the NFL, he wrote: Thank you to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, for your kind words on Fema etc. We are working hard. Much food and water there/on way.

Members
Members of Femas urban search and rescue team conduct a search operation in Yauco, Puerto Rico. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

On the island, Governor Ricardo Rossell, has warned that Puerto Rico is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. In the hard-to-reach interior of the country, thousands are struggling with destroyed houses, a heatwave and rapidly depleting supplies of clean water and food.

Earlier on Monday, Rossell made a point of thanking George HW Bush and former Florida governor Jeb Bush for their calls of support.

Most Puerto Ricans were spared the experience of reading Trumps tweets as a result of the total blackout. But condemnation was swift in mainland US. Juliette Kayyem, a former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama, said Trumps response showed a lack of empathy of epic proportions.

On Tuesday Nydia Velzquez, a Democratic representative from New York, said she was concerned that Trumps continued tweets about NFL players showed he did not grasp the severity of the crisis. Referring to criticism of George W Bush following a hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005, she warned the president: If you dont take this crisis seriously this is going to be your Katrina.

Velzquez also said she was offended and insulted by Trumps tweet that Puerto Ricos public debt contributed to the crisis.

Joe Crowley, another New York Democrat, said it was absolutely ridiculous for Trump to mention debt when people are suffering and dying.

Heres a president whos used bankruptcy throughout his entire career, he said.

This article was amended on 26 September 2017 to show Jeb Bush was the governor of Florida, not Texas as an earlier version said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/26/trump-puerto-rico-crisis-massive-debt