The Trump administration is scrambling to get its arms around a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico after Republicans and Democrats charged the White House with moving too slowly and paying too little attention to the island and its 3 million American citizens.
Eight days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, Trump’s team suspended for 10 days a U.S. shipping law to allow foreign vessels to assist in Puerto Rico’s relief effort. And the administration announced a three-star general overseeing the U.S. military’s efforts to move supplies into and throughout the island would go to Puerto Rico.
These efforts came only after significant pressure from local and federal officials of both parties, who spent the last three days warning the president that Washington’s response was not sufficient for the scale of the crisis.
“This is Katrina 2017, make no mistake about it,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois and one of five Puerto Ricans in Congress.
Even Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has emerged as a key advisor to Donald Trump on Latin America issues, publicly urged the president to move faster and put the U.S. military in charge of recovery and logistics efforts on the island.
“Nothing good happens in the tropics with eight days of no power,” Rubio told reporters on Thursday. “We have to respond to an unusual event with unusual measures.”
According to an adminsitration official, Puerto Rico’s governor is in charge of the overall response, that involves a complex web of civilian and military operations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency leads the federal support effort, and the Defense Department is supporting civilian authorities.
Rubio, who clearly has the ear of the president, argued that the government in Puerto Rico does not have the capacity — in money, staff or even communications resources — to lead such a massive effort. He pressed Trump to put the Defense Department in charge of recovery efforts on the island.
“This is what they do,” Rubio said Thursday. “They’re the best responders to natural disasters on the planet. And we need to employ them.”
The Trump administration spent much of the day defending itself from accusations that it has dragged its feet as officials on the island fight to restore electricity and mobile-phone service, and get families food and clean water. The White House sent multiple aides to the mics on Thursday who characterized the response as robust and adequate.
“I am very satisfied,” said Elaine Duke, acting secretary at the Homeland Security Department,.
According to the administration, more than 90 percent of the island now is now accessible; some 200 gas stations are open. Duke said some volunteer organizations might be frustrated with the lack of access, but she said any organization denied access is because they’re offering services that are not among the immediate priorities.
But on the ground, the situation remains dire. Puerto Rico is now suffering food shortages and is at risk of disease outbreak. Millions of residents still are without power or running water. Residents report waiting in line for hours to get gas and grocery stores are running out of food.
There are multiple agencies — local and federal — at work, with multiple chains of command.
"The Governor is in charge of the response,” said an administration official. “FEMA, through its FCO, leads the federal support to the governor. DoD is part of the Unified command in support of the civil authorities."
Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said the Defense Department is in charge of a lot but not everything. And while he credited Rubio with identifying a problem, he also said they were already working on it.
In the past, federal authorities would work with local officials and let them distribute resources. But Bossert said a “business model” is being implemented in Puerto Rico where federal officials are now being stationed in local municipalities, including with mayors and water and electricity authorities, to ensure better communication.
“He identified a problem, but it was a problem that’s already being fixed,” Bossert said of Rubio.
He added that 10,000 federal forces are on the island, including 7,200 troops. People who need it are being airlifted off the island, but he added that of the 69 hospitals on the island, 44 remain operational.
FEMA and Department of Defense officials emphasized that Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is in charge of the island's response, but that the federal government closely coordinates with local officials.
“We are in lockstep with those guys,” said FEMA regional administrator John Rabin. “We are not in a waiting mode for anything. We have reached out to all 78 municipalities here in Puerto Rico and we have delivered some commodities to all of them.”
The Trump administration started the day by waiving a law to allow foreign vessels to assist in Puerto Rico’s relief effort. Trump waived the Jones Act after other hurricanes hit Texas and Florida, but delayed after Maria hit Puerto Rico, saying he needed to take the concerns of the shipping industry into consideration.
Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Trump’s short-term waiver was not enough.
“We have to have the Jones Act permanently repealed, they just gave it a 10-day waiver,” McCain said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Rubio said the Trump administration is concerned about victims on the island. But he cautioned that the administration is operating with a playbook that works on the mainland rather than employing a unique response to a unique disaster.
“I think they care, I think they want to respond,” Rubio said. “I think they have responded to the way you'd respond to any storm. The problem is this is not any storm. This has unique components to it that makes it different from Irma that hit Florida...or Harvey that hit Texas.”
McClatchy reporters Anita Kumar and Joseph Cooke contributed.