President Trump To Assess Hurricane Relief Efforts In Puerto Rico

Oct 3, 2017
Originally published on October 3, 2017 11:56 am
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President Trump goes to Puerto Rico today, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria thrashed the U.S. commonwealth in the Caribbean. After a tense and very public back and forth with the outspoken San Juan mayor and several tweets disparaging Puerto Ricans for not, quote, "doing more to help themselves," the president's visit is bound to be controversial. NPR's John Burnett is in Puerto Rico, and he's been talking with residents there about how they're coping.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Monday started with an impassioned statement from Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello. He hoped that the calamity that's befallen his island can be a civics lesson for the mainland.


RICARDO ROSSELLO: Even after the storm hit Puerto Rico and even when it was evident that it was a disaster in the United States, only half of our U.S. citizens in the mainland knew that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.

BURNETT: The thousands of federal emergency workers who have landed here in recent weeks insist they're treating this U.S. territory just like they would Texas or Florida as they try to bring Puerto Rico back to life like a corpse revived. Random interviews with folks around storm-lashed San Juan reveal the people grateful for help from the U.S. a thousand miles away.

ANGEL MEDINA: Our country's going through a really hard time.

BURNETT: Angel Medina is a speech pathologist. With his office closed, he took his wife out for Medalla beers at Mi Casita Seafood, which kept the bottles cold with a generator.

MEDINA: We are part of this country. We have always felt I am a U.S. citizen. Now I need my country to respond for us.

BURNETT: The U.S. has sent in more than 6,000 military troops and 700 FEMA personnel, as well as scads of other disaster specialists that handle electric grids and hospitals and airports. They're bringing in hundreds of shipping containers full of food and water and a barge full of tanker trucks to deliver diesel. When San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz scolded self-congratulatory U.S. officials, Trump hit her with a tweet storm over the weekend. Puerto Rico has had problems getting drivers and pushing the supplies out to the weather-beaten municipalities that badly need them. A Social Services employee named Javier Barreto, digging into a plate of mashed plantations and Creole shrimp, cautioned the mayor not to bite the hand that feeds Puerto Rico.

JAVIER BARRETO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "We truly know," Barreto says, "that it's the United States that's extending a hand to us. It's shameful that our mayor treated the president this way. If we weren't U.S. citizens," he continued, "and we didn't have this help, we'd be screwed like Cubans or Haitians." Yet, many San Juan residents are glad their mayor stood up to the Trump administration and spoke truth to power. Katya Hunt is a dive master and waitress in Old San Juan who followed the president's tweets.

KATYA HUNT: Absolutely ridiculous. There are people who don't have food and water and we're suffering, and he didn't care about this.

BURNETT: President Trump is expected to arrive midday and take a helicopter ride over parts of the island that were demolished by the storm. He's scheduled to make comments to the traveling press corps but no public appearances. Aid workers privately hoped the chief executive, with his elaborate security, doesn't stay too long and disrupt the relief operation that's finally in full swing.

MARTIN: That was NPR's John Burnett, who joins us now on the line. So, John, sounds like - I mean, this could be an awkward visit. The president is going to get this very mixed reception in Puerto Rico today.

BURNETT: Hi, Rachel. It's true, but what's interesting is several of the folks that I talked to yesterday actually were sort of indifferent to the president's visit. It's like they weren't that aware of the controversy between the mayor of San Juan and the president's tweets. And this one woman told me down in Old San Juan, she said I'm not dazzled by the visit of the leader of the free world. My concerns are I'm just worried about whether I'm still going to have a job and where my next meal is going to come from, and where am I going to get clean water to take a shower, and where am I going to go for my stomach virus? Because, you know, there's - the hospitals aren't staffed up yet. So people in San Juan, they just have such bigger concerns. I mean, this has been such a devastating blow that this is kind of a sideshow when the president flies in today.

MARTIN: So what's he going to see? I mean, what does San Juan look like? What does the capital city look like right now?

BURNETT: You know, Rachel, the downside of many of the gas stations opening again and getting fuel is that people here are gridlocked all over the capital. Everybody's taken their car out, and there are no traffic lights. There's a few policemen out trying to direct traffic in some of the big intersections, and it's just - it's a madhouse. It's gridlocked, and it's some - it's like this pent up urban energy. Everybody wants to get in their car and go out and go to a store or go to a restaurant. So it's...

MARTIN: Which I imagine is why the president will be taking a helicopter to survey the damage.

BURNETT: Indeed, yeah.

MARTIN: NPR's John Burnett covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. President Trump and Melania Trump will pay a visit there today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.