Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a son of Puerto Rican migrants, said the Trump administration has done a “disgraceful job” of helping the 3.4 million Americans on the island devastated by Hurricane Maria.
“I think it isn’t a good job; it’s a disgraceful job. The United States of America is the most powerful, wealthiest country in the world, and this is not a response that’s demonstrative of our power and our wealth,” Gutiérrez said, his voice breaking during an interview Friday night with CNN’s Jim Scuitto.
President Trump has been facing mounting criticism over what some say is his administration’s slow response to Hurricane Maria. For four days after the massive hurricane made landfall, Trump and his aides remained largely silent as the storm-ravaged island struggled with lack of food, water and electricity, The Washington Post reported Friday. Earlier, the president had issued an emergency declaration and promised that all federal resources would be directed to help.
Local officials on the island, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, decried the failure to deliver basic necessities to communities across Puerto Rico and said the federal response had “collapsed.”
In response, Trump faulted the island’s “broken infrastructure & massive debt,” blamed the news media, and personally attacked Cruz. The president also praised his administration’s relief efforts, saying in a tweet Saturday that the thousands of federal workers on the island are doing a “fantastic job.”
More than 11,800 federal workers from three dozen departments and agencies are in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of recovery efforts after Hurricanes Maria and Irma, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency also said that millions of meals and liters of water have been provided and that more supplies are en route by air and sea.
Before Maria made landfall, more than 4,500 members of the National Guard were in Puerto Rico, administration officials said.
Gutiérrez, who owns a vacation property a few miles from San Juan, the capital, said the response had been inadequate.
“It’s costing lives, Mr. President, of children, and the elderly and the infirmed,” Gutiérrez said of the administration’s response. “And we should begin an operation to also evacuate people from this island, especially the elderly, especially those that have sicknesses until they can return to [the] island to rebuild it.”
He also said of Trump: “I would hope that as he likes to talk about fire and the fury of the armed forces of the United States, that he bring them to Puerto Rico. Put that same fire and fury to save the people of Puerto Rico from what is going to be a disaster here on this island.”
Gutiérrez added, though, that there is some good news. FEMA had promised to deliver 1.7 million meals and 2.5 million liters of water to the island, he said.
Moving food, water and other basic necessities to Puerto Rico’s ports and terminals is only half of the logistical challenge, as The Post reported this week. Distributing those goods to the people who need them is the other part of the problem, as damages to the trucking infrastructure and roads have also hampered relief efforts.
Gutiérrez, who represents many Puerto Rican constituents in Chicago, arrived on the island Friday. He is known for fiery speeches on the House floor and for regularly delivering passionate criticisms of Trump and, before him, President Barack Obama, over issues including immigration.
He is one of three Democratic congressmen who were arrested outside Trump Tower on Tuesday. Gutiérrez and Reps. Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.) and Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.) were protesting Trump’s decision to end an Obama-era program that provided legal protections to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Before he flew to Puerto Rico, Gutiérrez called for the federal government to not only meet immediate needs for food, water, medicine and shelter, but also to promise long-term investment and cooperation with the island’s government. He vowed to push Congress to appropriate funding to rebuild Puerto Rico.
“The work of first responders and our military has been heroic, but the island needs more. . . . This is a public-health crisis and should be declared a health emergency by the federal government,” Gutiérrez said in a speech on the House floor.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Rep. Luis Gutiérrez was born in Puerto Rico. He was born in Chicago, but lived in Puerto Rico for several years.