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Trump emphasizes challenges in Puerto Rico amid criticism of hurricane response

On Sept. 29, President Trump said that "the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort…will be funded." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: JOSHUA ROBERTS/The Washington Post)

Facing a cascade of criticism over his administration’s response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, President Trump on Friday sought to underscore the vast challenges involved in the recovery effort, saying “nobody’s ever seen anything like it.”

At the top of a speech devoted to tax policy, Trump ticked off a series of issues he said are making the recovery more difficult, including that Puerto Rico is an island, that its infrastructure was already in “very, very poor shape” and that the U.S. territory is saddled with “tremendous” debt.

“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort … will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” Trump said.

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“We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe,” he added. “These are great people. We want them to be safe and sound and secure. And we will be there every day until that happens.”

Trump’s comments came during an address in Washington to the National Association of Manufacturers that was staged to pitch the tax reform plan that he and Republican congressional leaders unveiled this week.

The president promised a “giant, beautiful, massive, the biggest-ever-in-our-country tax cut” and touted his administration’s efforts to cut regulations “at a pace that has never even been thought of.”

President Trump said that his tax plan includes a "giant, beautiful, massive, the biggest ever in our country tax cut." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/The Washington Post)

During his remarks on Hurricane Maria, Trump said the federal government has launched a “massive” effort to aid Puerto Rico that includes more than 10,000 federal workers, including 5,000 military and National Guard personnel “led by a very, very strong and talented three-star general.”

Trump repeatedly asserted his administration was facing unprecedented challenges in responding to a storm “of historic and catastrophic severity” that has affected an island that is home to 3.4 million Americans.

“This is an island surrounded by water — big water, ocean water,” Trump said.

The president said the federal government is closely coordinating with territorial and local governments, which he said are “totally and unfortunately unable to handle this catastrophic crisis on their own — just totally unable to.”

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Trump said key personnel on the island, including police and truck drivers, are “very substantially gone.”

“They're taking care of their families and largely unable to get involved, largely unable to help,” he said. “Therefore, we're forced to bring in truck drivers, security and many, many other personnel by the thousands. And we're bringing them onto the island as we speak. We've never seen a situation like this.”

Trump said the island’s electrical grid and other infrastructure “were at their life's end prior to the hurricanes. And now virtually everything has been wiped out and we will have to really start all over again. We're literally starting from scratch.”

He noted that his administration is also working with the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were also hit by the storm, and that in both locations “there’s nothing left. It’s been wiped out.”

“The houses are largely flattened. The roads are washed away. There is no electricity. The plants are gone. They're gone,” Trump said.