On a scale of 1 to 10, President Trump said Thursday that his administration deserves a “10” for its response to the devastation caused on Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria.
Trump spoke after his meeting in the Oval Office with the U.S. territory’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, who — when asked by Trump “did we do a great job?” — said, “You responded immediately, sir.”
Nearly a month after the powerful storm swept across the Caribbean island, most residents remain without power and one-third do not have access to clean drinking water; the administration has been widely criticized for lagging in responding to the devastation caused by the hurricane.
Trump stressed that the island’s infrastructure, including its roads and power grid, “was in pretty rough shape” before the storm.
While in the past Trump seemed to blame Puerto Ricans for their plight, in Thursday’s meeting, he praised the island’s residents, saying they were “just incredible people, the spirit they have, the strength they have, what they’ve gone through.”
The president said the 10-out-of-10 score was warranted because “it was probably the most difficult — when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved. If you look at the number, I mean this was, I think, it was worse than Katrina. It was in many ways worse than anything people have ever seen.”
FEMA Administrator Brock Long, who was also at Thursday’s Oval Office meeting, said his agency was focused on trying to restore essential functions “to six major municipalities within Puerto Rico that service about 80 percent of the population, starting there and then working our way out.”
Long said a “traditional recovery” on the island “is going to require a solution far greater than what FEMA typically puts down.”
FEMA wants to hire as many as 2,000 local people to help respond to individual recovery efforts, in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. According to the agency, it’s seeking everything from civil engineers to historic preservation specialists to crisis counselors and nurses. It held a job fair in Puerto Rico last week. The temporary positions could last for as long as a year.
Mike Sprayberry, who is the state of North Carolina’s emergency management director and president of the National Emergency Management Association, recently told NPR that there are also disaster reservists to call on to help with the recovery from not just the recent string of hurricanes but also the wildfires in California.
States are pitching in to help one another as part of an emergency management assistance compact. “I’ve got 10 people down in Puerto Rico,” Sprayberry said, adding, “We’re not the only ones. There’s a lot of folks that are helping out. It’s very efficient and I think it’s the best of America and what we have to give.”
Sprayberry said FEMA may need to expand if the number of disasters it needs to respond to keeps growing, as some believe is possible with the effects of climate change.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives last week approved another $36.5 billion for emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by disasters. The Senate is expected to act on that package soon. That new relief package is in addition to the $15.25 billion lawmakers approved last month for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding. And more will almost certainly be needed.