Sen. Bernie Sanders at his office on Capitol Hill on Oct. 17. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose selection as a major speaker at the upcoming Women’s Convention set off a heated debate among feminists, said he won’t attend the event but will instead visit Puerto Rico, which is still struggling to recover from the extensive damage left by back-to-back hurricanes.

In a statement issued by his office Thursday, Sanders said: “I want to apologize to the organizers of the Women’s Convention for not being able to attend your conference next Friday in Detroit. Given the emergency situation in Puerto Rico, I will be traveling there to visit with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and other officials to determine the best way forward to deal with the devastation the island is experiencing. The U.S. Congress cannot turn its back on the millions of people in Puerto Rico who, four weeks after the hurricane, are still without electricity, food and running water.

The convention, scheduled for Oct. 27-29, is the first major event since last January’s Women’s March, in which millions of women across the country took to the streets to protest the election of President Trump and vowed to fight policies that they said would hurt women and families, including repealing the Affordable Care Act, cracking down on undocumented immigrants and curbing abortion rights.

When organizers announced last week that Sanders would speak on the opening day of the convention, some women criticized the choice. Some were still angry at Sanders, who they say ran a negative primary campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton in her bid to become the first woman to win a major party presidential nomination. Others simply argued that it was an insult for a man to be the opening speaker at a national gathering of women.

Organizers noted that Sanders was one of only two male speakers at the gathering and that he was not the headliner. That honor went to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), whose unrelenting criticism of the president has made her one of the most popular figures of the opposition to the Trump administration. Other women defended Sanders as a supporter of women’s rights and noted his leading the charge for universal health care.

The Women’s March announced the news about Sanders bowing out of the convention on Twitter, saying that the “humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico … is a critical matter.”

Sanders in his statement offered the group his “best wishes for a very successful conference.”