Trump Attacks San Juan Mayor as Hurricane Bears Down on East Coast

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump again insisted his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico was a success and lashed out at the mayor of the island’s largest city, as a major storm closed in on the Carolina coast.

“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan),” Trump said on Twitter. “We are ready for the big one that is coming!”

The president has sought to re-litigate his government’s failures in Puerto Rico a year ago even as Hurricane Florence, a category four storm, menaces the East Coast. It’s expected to strike the Carolinas early Friday and inundate the coast with as much as 13 feet of storm surge.

The San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who endorses Democrats in mainland politics, has frequently needled Trump over the federal response to Hurricane Maria. The Puerto Rico government revised the death toll from the storm dramatically upward last month, to 2,975 people, and a Government Accountability Office report this month lambasted the Federal Emergency Management Agency for what it said was an inadequate response to the storm.

“Pres Trump thinks loosing [sic] 3,000 lives is a success,” Cruz said on Twitter late Tuesday. “Can you imagine what he thinks failure looks like?”

Trump called his government’s work after Hurricane Maria an “unsung success” earlier on Tuesday. He’s repeatedly defended federal efforts in the wake of Maria, a category 4 storm when it struck Puerto Rico and destroyed much of the territory’s infrastructure, leaving most of the island without power for weeks or longer.

The states of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina haven’t seen a storm of Florence’s size and intensity in 25 years or perhaps ever, Trump said Tuesday. “It’s tremendously big and tremendously wet,” he told reporters at the White House.

On Wednesday, he said in a tweet that “Hurricane Florence is looking even bigger than anticipated. It will be arriving soon. FEMA, First Responders and Law Enforcement are supplied and ready. Be safe!”

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 Hurricane Irma and then Maria assailed Puerto Rico.

The GAO report said that FEMA was overwhelmed. 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 death toll has ranged from as low as 64 to as high as 5,000, the accountability office said the FEMA’s poor response was compounded by a failure to deploy enough qualified staff.

Responding to Trump’s assessment of his administration’s handling of storm damage, Cruz said on MSNBC Wednesday that the territory’s 2,975 deaths “will follow him wherever he goes for the rest of his life.”

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, who has avoided public confrontations with the president, was more circumspect about his remarks.

“No relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called ‘successful’ because Puerto Ricans lack certain inalienable rights enjoyed by our fellow Americans in the states,” Rossello said in a statement late Tuesday. “This was the worst natural disaster in our modern history. Our basic infrastructure was devastated, thousands of our people lost their lives and many others still struggle.”

Trump said Tuesday 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, 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 Irma hadn’t had electricity restored before Maria hit. But the electricity supply was operating normally before Irma.

‘Devastation’ Planning

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.

“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 on Tuesday. “This is not going to be a storm we recover from in days. We are planning for devastation.”

But the administration faces further criticism over a decision to transfer about $10 million from FEMA’s operations budget this year. The money was among scores of budget transfers made within the Department of Homeland Security to bolster funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a document sent to Congress and provided by Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat.

MSNBC first reported the transfer Tuesday evening. A DHS spokesman, Tyler Houlton, confirmed the transfer but said on Twitter that the money could not have been used for disaster relief.

“The money in question — transferred to ICE from FEMA’s routine operating expenses — could not have been used for hurricane response due to appropriation limitations,” Houlton said. “DHS/FEMA stand fiscally and operationally ready to support current and future response and recovery needs.”

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