President Donald Trump called his government’s response to Hurricane Maria an “unsung success” on Tuesday, two weeks after Puerto Rico’s leaders dramatically increased the death toll from the 2017 storm to 2,975 people.
Trump has repeatedly defended federal efforts in the wake of Maria, a Category 5 storm that destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and left most of the island without power for weeks or longer. His latest remarks came after he was briefed on Hurricane Florence, now a Category 4 storm, that’s expected to strike the mid-Atlantic coast at the end of the week.
“We’re as ready as anybody’s ever been,” he told reporters at the White House. “It’s going to be a very large one.”
The states of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina haven’t seen a storm of such size and intensity in 25 years or perhaps ever, Trump said. “It’s tremendously big and tremendously wet,” he said.
Puerto Rico Criticism
The Trump administration was roundly criticized for its performance during a record year of disasters in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey flooded southern Texas before Maria assailed Puerto Rico.
In a report issued earlier this month, the government’s chief watchdog found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been overwhelmed by a series of devastating hurricanes and other disasters in 2017. The Government Accountability Office said the agency had failed to adequately house disaster victims, distribute financial assistance in a timely fashion or do enough to prevent fraud.
In Puerto Rico, where the estimated death toll from Hurricane Maria has ranged from as low as 64 to as high as 5,000, the accountability office said the agency’s poor response was compounded by a failure to deploy enough qualified staff.
“Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success,” Trump said Tuesday. He said that the territory had no electricity even before Maria struck, an exaggeration.
While the federal response to storms in Texas and Florida last year was “A-plus,” Trump said, “the best job we did was Puerto Rico, but no one would understand that. They had no electric before the storm hit — it was dead.”
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was under bankruptcy protection and some parts of the island that lost power during Hurricane Irma hadn’t had electricity restored before Maria hit. But the electricity supply was operating normally before Irma.
This time — as Florence and a series of other storms barrel toward the U.S. — FEMA says it’s prepared, even as the agency defends its 2017 response. Florence is forecast to hit the Carolinas later this week.
“I’m confident the response in 2017 was good and I’m confident this response will be good,” FEMA Associate Administrator Jeff Byard told reporters during a briefing earlier on Tuesday. “This is not going to be a storm we recover from in days. We are planning for devastation.”
At the White House, Trump asked FEMA administrator Brock Long if there was still a chance Florence may veer off into the Atlantic. Long said that the expectation is that it will make landfall.
“These will be statewide events,” Long said, urging residents of areas under evacuation orders to flee.
“It’s very risky” to remain, Trump added. “It’s going to be really, really bad along the coast.”
Ricardo Rosselló, the Governor of Puerto Rico, responded on Tuesday night saying “no relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called a success.”