World

Be 'proud' more didn't die, Trump tells Puerto Rico

US President's comments on visit to hurricane-hit island designed to quiet criticism that response was not fast enough

GUAYNABO, PUERTO RICO: US President Donald Trump shook hands with storm survivors in Puerto Rico and told them to be "proud" the island did not lose more lives to Hurricane Maria, on a trip designed to quiet criticism of his administration's response to the disaster.

Alongside First Lady Melania Trump, Mr Trump visited the middle class suburb of Guaynabo, walking among trees felled by Maria's jet-blast winds.

Two weeks on, much of the US territory remains short of food and without access to power or drinking water.

Seven percent of the island has electricity, more than 9,000 people are living in shelters and just 40 per cent of telecommunications are back up. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The administration's critics said the early response was not fast enough or on a scale that could help the island's 3.4 million American citizens.

Beginning his five-hour trip, Mr Trump rallied disaster management workers, telling them they "can be very proud" of their response.

But many of his comments appeared to be aimed at quieting his own critics. He invited officials to say "nice things" about the response and contrasted it with previous storms.

"We saved a lot of lives," he said.

"If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina (2005 in New Orleans) and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and what happened here with a storm that was just totally overbearing.

"No one has ever seen anything like that. What is your death count?"

At the time, it stood at 16.

He added: "I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you threw our budget a little out of whack, but that is fine."

He later described the response as "nothing short of a miracle".

Later, Governor Ricardo Rossello announced the death toll had more than doubled. He said it included drownings, injuries from homes collapsing and people on respirators who died because there was no power for the equipment.

Before the trip, Mr Trump had feuded with local officials over the pace of the relief effort, suggesting Puerto Ricans were "ingrates" who "want everything to be done for them".

He has also been pilloried by opponents for moving more slowly to help Puerto Rico than he did Texas or Florida.

"I do not remember the President telling Texas that they threw our budget out of whack after Harvey or Florida after Irma," said top Senate democrat Chuck Schumer.

"That is what we do in America. When one part of the country has trouble, the rest of the country reaches out to them and says, 'We are going to help you'."- AFP

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