SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – US President Donald Trump on Saturday placed blame squarely on Puerto Ricans for the slow recovery from Hurricane Maria after critics complained that his administration’s response to the US territory’s plight was insufficient.
Eleven days after the devastating storm wiped out power, water and communications systems, more than half of the 3.4 million people in on the island do not have access to drinking water, and 95 percent remain without power, according to the US Defense Department.
“I’m a ticking time bomb on the verge of exploding,” said Adeline Vazquez, 53, who needs a ventilator for respiratory problems and whose building in the western city of Mayaguez does not have enough fuel to run a generator 24 hours a day.
Maria, the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, has destroyed roads, making it difficult to get food, water and fuel around the island. The hurricane has killed at least 16 people, according to the official death toll.
Trump, who plans to visit the island on Tuesday, fired off a series of angry tweets from his private golf club in New Jersey, taking aim at the mayor of San Juan, the island’s capital and largest city.
On Friday, Carmen Yulin Cruz criticized Trump’s administration and begged for more help, pleas that received widespread television coverage in the mainland United States.
“Such poor leadership by the Mayor of San Juan and others in Puerto Rico who are not able to get their workers to help,” said Trump, a Republican. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
Trump – who often turns to Twitter to strike out when his government is under pressure – accused Cruz of being “told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump” and blamed the media for not showing the “amazing job” of responders.
Cruz, who has been living in a shelter after her home was destroyed in the hurricane, said municipal employees were working as hard as they could. She also said her complaints had resulted in more food and water being provided.
“Actually, I was asking for help – I wasn’t saying anything nasty about the president,” Cruz said on MSNBC. “I am not going to be distracted by small comments, by politics, by petty issues.”
Trump’s comments drew swift condemnation.
“The tweets this morning are despicable, are deplorable, are not statesman-like at all,” said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat born in Puerto Rico.
Later in the day, Trump tempered his tweeted barbs. “We must all be united in offering assistance to everyone suffering in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the wake of this terrible disaster,” he said.
The US military is moving in more equipment and personnel to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state officials respond to the destruction from the storm, which landed just as the island was recovering from Hurricane Irma.
They face a population losing its patience and wondering why, as American citizens, they are not getting the same relief as residents of Florida and Texas after storms Irma and Harvey.
San Juan resident Judith Berkan said power shortages and long lines for cash, food, gasoline and medical attention were wearing people down.
“Things don’t seem to be getting better,” Berkan, a lawyer, said in a text message.
Outside of San Juan, there were few signs of federal workers in towns across the island.
Asked why there were not more workers spread around the island, FEMA Administrator Brock Long grew defensive, saying media needed to “start focusing on the progress that has been made.”
“Hang on, my mission is way more difficult than trying to get to one area,” Long said on CNN, saying the agency had set up hubs around the island, and that San Juan Mayor Cruz needed to “get plugged in to what’s going on” in the response.
“We have great communication with the majority of mayors who are actually marshaling their own people to be able to come in and grab the commodities and go back to their communities,” he said.
Puerto Rico’s creaky power grid was wiped out in the storm, a loss expected to further cripple the island’s economy, which has long been mired in recession and is navigating the biggest government bankruptcy in US history.
The insurance industry has begun to tally the damage from Maria, with one modelling company estimating that claims could reach $85 billion.
Near Humacao on the island’s southeastern coast, the storm ripped out about 50,000 solar panels from the Fonroche Solar City project, blasting them chaotically onto a highway and smashing thickets of bamboo, leaving the once-shimmering surface twisted.
Michael Agosto, 44, a security guard at the plant, said the energy-intensive plants in the nearby industrial park were spending more on diesel than they could bear.
The solar plant’s future also looked bleak: it has been told that it could take eight months for the grid to become fully operational.
“All these companies are going to end up leaving,” Agosto said, gesturing to a shuttered Microsoft plant next door.
Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello said the Trump administration had given Puerto Rico’s government “whatever we ask for” in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.
But he warned that the US Congress would need to help the island rebuild.
“If Congress doesn’t take action with a significant package, then we are looking at a possible humanitarian crisis,” he said. “What are the effects of falling into that predicament? Massive exodus without a doubt.”