WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pledged to help Puerto Ricans recover basic necessities and security in Maria's ruinous aftermath as his homeland security chief tried to escape a tempest of her own making, set off when she called Washington's response to the hurricane a "good-news story."
Elaine Duke, the department's acting secretary, drew a sharp rebuke from San Juan's mayor for seeming to play down the suffering.
"When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good-news story," Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told CNN on Friday. "Damn it, this is not a good-news story. This is a people-are-dying story."
For his part, Trump said Puerto Rico is "totally unable" to handle the catastrophe on its own. "They are working so hard but there's nothing left," he said. "It's been wiped out." He said the government is "fully engaged in the disaster and the response and recovery effort."
Yet even in voicing solidarity and sympathy, he drew attention again to Puerto Rico's pre-hurricane debt burden and infrastructure woes, leaving doubt how far Washington will go to make the U.S. territory whole.
"Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort — it will end up being one of the biggest ever — will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island," he said. "We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe."
Earlier he tweeted: "The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!"
Duke visited the island Friday, surveying damage, meeting local officials and trying to move on from remarks that stunned some in Puerto Rico a day earlier.
Speaking to the press, and taking no questions, she said neither she nor Trump will rest until displaced Puerto Ricans are back home, schools, hospitals and clean water are back and the island's economy is moving again. Duke said she is aware that people are suffering and "clearly the situation in Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane is not satisfactory."
During this season's trio of monster hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Maria — Trump and his administration have drifted into the perilous territory of premature self-congratulation in the face of unfolding catastrophe, seemingly unmindful of the "Brownie moment" that scarred George W. Bush's presidency.
Bush famously told his emergency management director, Michael Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" during what proved to be a tragically inept federal response to deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Trump has repeatedly boasted about the positive reviews he said his administration is getting from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for its relief effort, even as people in remote towns struggle to find food, water and other basics. Then Duke said before leaving Washington that the federal relief effort was a "good-news story" because of "our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths."
"Let me clarify," she said Friday upon her arrival in San Juan. She said she meant "it was good news that people of Puerto Rico and many public servants of the United States are working together."
Trump is expected to survey the damage Tuesday.
Alonso reported from San Juan.