President Donald Trump has faced mounting criticism over his response to the crisis in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Critics say Trump has been distracted with a controversy over NFL protests that he helped fuel.
Seeking to change the narrative, Trump has ramped up response efforts and will visit the island next week.
President Donald Trump is facing yet another hurricane-induced crisis.
But while his administration's response to two prior hurricanes hitting the US mainland received praise, he has been swarmed with criticism over what critics say is a lackluster response effort to a far more severe humanitarian disaster on the US island territory of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria's wrath there last week.
It's been compared to the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 under President George W. Bush.
"Situation in Puerto Rico will be Trump's Katrina if he does not hurry," tweeted Norman Eisen, who served as the top ethics lawyer in President Barack Obama's administration.
Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York, who has two brothers she still hasn't heard from in Puerto Rico, echoed Eisen in telling CNN the crisis could become "Mr. Trump's Katrina."
Some conservatives have asserted that the media is attempting to quickly paint the comparison. But Republican leaders have publicly pushed Trump to do more for the both the island territory and the US Virgin Islands, which was slammed by Maria as well.
"Just spoke w/ fmr Gov @luisfortuno51: 'PR on brink of humanitarian disaster.' USVI too," the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, tweeted earlier this week. "DC must put aside controversies, prioritize rescue."
"Returning from #PuertoRico now. Tremendous damage," Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted. "Potential for serious crisis in areas outside of #SanJuan MUST get power crews in ASAP."
Responding to Rubio's tweet, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska tweeted that "the crisis for these Americans needs more attention — and more urgency from the executive branch."
The massive storm — the strongest to make landfall in Puerto Rico in nearly a century — killed at least 16 people and has knocked out power for nearly all of the island. Roughly half the population is without drinking water.
"What's out there is total devastation," Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan told ABC News. "Total annihilation. People literally gasping for air. I personally have taken people out and put them in ambulances because their generator has run out."
As ABC News reported, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its partners have provided Puerto Ricans and US Virgin Islanders with more than 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, and tens of thousands of tarps and rolls of roof sheeting, with millions more meals and liters of water en route.
The San Juan mayor praised the FEMA response, saying FEMA employees "are great, they're good people."
"But the chain of command needs to work a little faster for the people," she said.
On Tuesday, however, the US denied a request to waive shipping restrictions to try to help get fuel and supplies to the island. The Trump administration said waiving those restrictions wouldn't have done anything to address problems with damaged ports, which it said was Puerto Rico's main shipping impediment, Reuters reported.
The Jones Act, the law that was requested to be waived, allows for only US-flagged vessels to ship to Puerto Rico. The act is sometimes waived in the aftermath of such disasters, however, to allow foreign-flagged ships. The Department of Homeland Security waived the act after the hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as the act applies to shipping between any US ports.
Republican Sen. John McCain called the decision "unacceptable" in a tweet Wednesday.
Lack of focus?
Trump has earned criticism for appearing to focus much of his attention on issues like NFL national anthem protests. For instance, from Friday to midday Tuesday, Trump tweeted 24 times about the NFL controversy, which he ignited at a raucous rally in Alabama on Friday.
Starting Monday night, Trump tried to shift the narrative to Puerto Rico. But his first response following his weekend of taunting the NFL highlighted the island's debts.
"Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble," Trump said in the first of three tweets. "It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well."
Trump began to increase his focus on Puerto Rico on Tuesday, amending his disaster declaration to allocate additional funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures. The president also announced he would visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday.
Though he said the island was "literally destroyed," Trump said "they'll be back" and called the Puerto Rican people "important to all of us."
Speaking alongside Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at a press conference, Trump began his remarks by highlighting the situation in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, seeking to assure people that the US was committed in its response.
"Both have been devastated — and I mean absolutely devastated — by Hurricane Maria, and we're doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people of both places, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands," he said. "And a massive effort is underway, and we have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor and by everybody else.
"They know how hard we're working and what a good job we're doing," he added. "As we speak, FEMA, our great first responders, and all available federal resources, including the military, are being marshaled to save lives, protect families, and begin a long and very, very difficult restoration process."
Trump, asked point blank about whether he was preoccupied with the NFL instead of Puerto Rico, insisted that was not the case, though he made sure to assert that his battle with the NFL was an important one.
"I've heard that before about was I preoccupied," Trump said. "Not at all. Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work. And to be honest with you, that's an important function of working. It's called respect for our country."
"It's on an island in the middle of the ocean," he continued. "It's out in the ocean. You can't just drive your trucks there from other states."
Seeking to change the narrative, Trump said "we are totally focused" on the response in both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
He then again highlighted that providing supplies to Puerto Rico provided different challenges than supplying relief to places such as Texas and Florida.
"We right now have our top people from FEMA, and they have been there," he said. "We're are unloading, on an hourly basis, massive loads of water and food and supplies for Puerto Rico. And this isn't like Florida where we can go right up the spine, or like Texas where we go right down the middle and we distribute. This is a thing called the Atlantic Ocean. This is tough stuff."
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