Trump accuses Puerto Ricans of wanting 'everything done for them'

San Juan (AFP) –


President Donald Trump on Saturday accused Puerto Ricans of wanting "everything to be done for them," even as criticism grew that federal relief efforts amid devastating hurricane damage have fallen desperately short.

While much of the US territory remained without power, fresh water or communications links long after the catastrophic passage of Hurricane Maria, reports continued to filter in on Saturday of towns across the island yet to see any federal presence -- or local, for that matter.

Enormous, hours-long queues grew at San Juan gas stations -- some patrolled by private security guards -- while desperate residents in the interior said reporters were the first outsiders they had seen. "There's been no help from FEMA nor from the federal government nor from anyone," said Elisa Gonzalez, 49.

But Trump insisted in a series of Twitter messages Saturday that federal emergency response teams and the US military, which has sent dozens of ships and some 10,000 troops, were doing a "fantastic" job.

Criticized for devoting more attention to protests by professional football players than to the disaster in the Caribbean, the White House announced Saturday that the president would make a series of phone calls later in the day to officials in Puerto Rico ahead of a visit there Tuesday.

Trump, in his tweets, sought to lay blame for the island's continuing woes on Democrats, the media and local officials.

After San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz complained in impassioned remarks that "We are dying here, and I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island," Trump unleashed a series of Twitter complaints.

- 'Poor leadership' -

"The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump," he wrote.

"Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.

"They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job."

Trump's latest remarks -- issued from his luxury golf resort in New Jersey -- could further inflame sentiment. His earlier comments questioning who would pay for reconstruction given the territory's financial debt, at a time when islanders faced existential threats, were viewed by some as premature and distasteful.

The suggestion that some Puerto Ricans did not want to work also appeared likely to stoke resentment at a time when many of the island's first responders, desperately working to keep their own families alive, have been unable to join in the larger relief effort.

Puerto Ricans were also angered by Trump's delay in finally waiving a US law that bars foreign-flagged ships from delivering aid to US ports including Puerto Rico. Though Trump had waived the law after hurricanes struck the mainland, he argued that "a lot of shippers" did not want the law waived again.

Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but due to the territory's status do not vote in presidential elections and have no voice in Congress.

Critics say the president has paid less attention to the disaster there than he did to helping Texas and Florida after hurricanes hit them.

- FEMA 'working extra hard' -

The Puerto Rican governor, Ricardo Rossello, has been less openly critical of the federal effort than Mayor Cruz. In a briefing Saturday he pointed to efforts by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to deliver fuel across the island.

"FEMA has been working extra hard on this effort," he said, noting that the number of open gas stations had gone in four days from 450 to 714.

His office said FEMA had so far delivered 2.5 million liters of water and two million meals.

Asked about the Twitter drama involving Trump and Cruz, Rossello merely observed, "The only way for this to work is for us to have collaboration."

But across the island, people were continuing to wait for concrete signs of that collaboration -- for food, for potable water, for gas, for anything.

"Today I am alone," said 89-year-old Georgina Penalver in the central town of Comerio, who spent her time praying as Hurricane Maria lashed the island, and who has been unable to get through to her eight children in the mainland.

"With God and the Virgin."