As the federal government’s disaster response in Puerto Rico has come under scrutiny, President Trump has enjoyed the support of a critical voice — the island’s only representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón.
González-Colón (R), 41, has repeatedly hailed the president’s work and said his warmth and focus after Hurricane Maria last year changed her perception of him. But on Thursday, Trump took to Twitter to claim that Democrats had exaggerated the number of deaths attributable to the hurricane, estimated at 2,975, to “make me look bad.” He also provoked criticism Wednesday by describing the federal effort to rebuild the island as “A Plus” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.”
González-Colón rejected Trump’s false claim. In a Q&A with The Washington Post, she also accused Democrats of playing politics with the island ahead of the midterm elections and criticized the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has publicly clashed with Trump over his response.
Q. Do you agree with President Trump’s claim?
A. I need to respectfully disagree on that because that’s not the reality. . . . I think he’s not getting the information correctly. I think he’s still working with the numbers he got when he was on the island and he asked directly about the death toll. He was informed by the local government at the time the death toll was 64, but the number jumped up afterwards.
Q. Is George Washington University’s estimate of 2,975 “excess deaths” due to Hurricane Maria accurate?
A. Yes. Still, I would say locally it’s not a contested issue. People passed away. Their families are still grieving. There’s a lot of sorrow. This is our priority. The suffering of people is our priority, not a clash of who’s to blame.
Q. Why do you think the president has downplayed the number of deaths?
A. I totally disagree with the assumption the president made on the tweet . . . [but] there are a lot of issues regarding the death toll. In terms of the initial number, the physicians on the island weren’t prepared to deal with a toll like this. How do you fill out the cause of death? It’s just the physician. And if a physician doesn’t receive instructions on how to handle a hurricane or a natural disaster, you’ll have differences.
There is also complexity because a lot of people died from secondary effects. You can’t say a heart attack for a person that never reached hospital is not related, because if there was no hurricane, maybe that person’s still alive. Dialysis, the same — a lot of people died during the first week because there was no electricity available for the machines.
Q. Have the Democrats turned Puerto Rico into a partisan issue?
A. Sadly, some people have used this issue — like the mayor of San Juan — just to hit the president when he’s the one approving the funds and was there approving the executive orders. You’ve got Democrats trying to take this issue and take some credit and make a big fuss. For me that’s tactics for the midterms.
My plea is that instead of focusing on who’s fault it is or who to blame, we’ve got a lot of challenges. . . . People are still suffering. This is so much bigger than blaming somebody. We’re asking for more resources. This is a disaster of great magnitude and we need to fix it and prepare for a new one, not play politics.
I don’t want to play the same game. It would be easy for politicians on both sides in the midterms, so for everybody we need to stop playing politics. I don’t want it to get out of hand and for it to be forgotten. The fight is getting out of control and distracting from what we need.
Q. Has the president’s response been “A Plus” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done”?
A. Yes. It was a better response than we’ve had from the federal government. This is the first time ever we’ve got the president and the first lady and the vice president going in less than a month to see how we’re struggling with the issue. This is the first time ever that FEMA was on the island before, during and after both hurricanes. This is the first time ever Puerto Rico has got more than $44 billion in less than a year.
My experience with President Trump was he was asking me directly: “What do you need? What else should I be doing?” He approved a lot of waivers. The federal government paid 100 percent of the cost share of the recovery on the island. And he was there. So I need to say this is the first time ever Puerto Rico got this kind of money. There are several incidents where he took a leading effort during the recovery.
At the same time, it’s not that everything was good. We haven’t received all the disbursements of the funds that have been allocated to the island. There’s red tape and bureaucracy on the island. Again, I do disagree with saying the deaths aren’t that. And we need more resources.
Q. Has Puerto Rico recovered?
A. We’re still far away from a recovery. We lost more than 28 bridges that totally collapsed . . . 400 bridges severely damaged. . . . More than 100,000 were directly affected in their houses, who are still using blue tarps as roofs. We’ve been totally devastated. People are still grieving, they’re still suffering.
Q. How could the response be improved?
A. It’s easy to destroy — it’s more difficult to construct. So I don’t want people in the mainland to think the people of Puerto Rico aren’t grateful for the volunteers or federal workers. But we still need resources and funds. We’re still fighting for more and working with the administration for more.
The study from George Washington University identified the island had a protocol for just a Category 1 hurricane or disaster and not one higher. And then we got hit twice. And what about hurricanes or tsunamis or earthquakes? Are we prepared for that?
The issue lying in all this is we’re not a state. You’ve got people in Puerto Rico who voted in June for statehood — 97 percent voted for statehood. If we were a state, we’d have two senators and five representatives. I can’t vote on the floor. We’ve got many different friends, but we’ve never had enough representations or funds. We’re a colony, a territory, not a state.