At first, the Trump administration seemed to be doing all the right things to respond to the disaster in Puerto Rico.
As Hurricane Maria made landfall that Wednesday, there was a frenzy of activity publicly and privately. The next day, President Donald Trump called local officials on the island, issued an emergency declaration and pledged that all federal resources would be directed to help.
But then for four days after that – as storm-ravaged Puerto Rico struggled for food and water amid the darkness of power outages – Trump and his top aides effectively went dark themselves.
Trump jetted to New Jersey that Thursday night to spend a long weekend at his private golf club there, save for a quick trip to Alabama for a political rally. Neither Trump nor any of his senior White House aides said a word publicly about the unfolding crisis.
Trump did hold a meeting at his golf club that Friday with half a dozen Cabinet officials – including Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, who oversees disaster response – but the gathering was held to discuss his new refugee travel ban, not the hurricane. Duke and Trump spoke briefly about Puerto Rico, but did not talk again until Tuesday, an administration official said.
Administration officials would not say whether the president spoke with any other top officials involved in the storm response while in Bedminster, New Jersey. Trump spent much of his time over those four days fixated on his escalating public feuds with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, with fellow Republicans in Congress and with the NFL over anthem protests.
In Puerto Rico, meanwhile, the scope of the devastation was becoming clearer. Virtually the entire island was without power and much of it could be for weeks, officials estimated, and about half of the territory’s more than 3 million residents were without access to clean water. Gas was in short supply, airports and ports were in disrepair and telecommunications infrastructure had been destroyed.
Federal and local officials said communications on the island made the task of assessing the widespread damage far more challenging, and even local officials were slow to recognize that for this storm, far more help would be necessary.
“I don’t think that anybody realized how bad this was going to be,” said a person familiar with ongoing discussions between Washington and officials Puerto Rico. “Quite frankly, the level of communications and collaboration that I’ve seen with Irma and now Maria between the administration, local government and our office has been unprecedented.”
“Whether that’s been translated into effectiveness on the ground, that’s up for interpretation,” the person added.
Unlike what they faced in Texas and Florida the federal agencies found themselves partnered with a government completely flattened by the hurricane and operating with almost no information about the status of its citizens. FEMA struggled to find truck drivers to deliver aid from the ports to the people in need, for example.
“The level of devastation and the impact on the first responders we closely work with was so great that those people were having to take care of their families and homes to an extent we don’t normally see,” said an administration official who insisted on anonymity because he did not want his statement to be interpreted as criticism of authorities in Puerto Rico. “The Department of Defense, FEMA and the federal government are having to step in to fulfill state and municipal functions that we normally just support.”
Even though local officials had said publicly as early as Thursday that the island was “destroyed,” the sense of urgency didn’t begin to penetrate the White House until Monday, when images of the utter destruction and desperation – and criticism of the administration’s response -began to appear on television, one senior administration official said.
“The Trump administration was slow off the mark,” said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., the first lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent elected by the state of Florida to Congress. “. . .We’ve invaded small countries faster than we’ve been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”
Trump’s public schedule on Monday was devoid of any meetings related to the storm, but he was becoming frustrated by the coverage he was seeing on TV, the senior official said.
At a dinner Monday evening with conservative leaders at the White House on Monday, Trump opened the gathering by briefly lamenting the tragedy unfolding in Puerto Rico before launching into a lengthy diatribe against Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over his opposition to the Republicans’ failed health-care bill, according to one attendee.
After the dinner, Trump lashed out on social media. He blamed the island’s financial woes and ailing infrastructure for the difficult recovery efforts. He also declared that efforts to provide food, water and medical care were “doing well.”
On the ground in Puerto Rico, nothing could be further from the truth. It had taken until Monday – five days after Maria made landfall – for the first senior administration officials from Washington to touch down in Puerto Rico to survey the damage firsthand. And only after Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA Director Brock Long returned to Washington did the administration leap into action.
Trump presided over a Situation Room meeting on the federal and local efforts on Tuesday and, late in the day, the White House added a Cabinet-level meeting to the president’s schedule on Hurricane Maria.
White House aides say the president was being updated on progress in the storm recovery efforts through the weekend, and an administration official said Vice President Mike Pence talked with Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón over the weekend. Trump spoke to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló when Maria made landfall and then again Tuesday; he spoke to González-Colón for the first time Wednesday.
The administration still fumbled at key moments after stepping up its response. A week after landfall, Trump still had not waived the Jones Act, a law that barred foreign flagged vessels from delivering aid to Puerto Rico. Such a waiver had been granted for previous hurricanes this year.
Asked why his administration had delayed in granting the waiver, Trump said Wednesday that “a lot of shippers and . . . a lot of people that work in the shipping industry” didn’t want it lifted.
“If this is supposed to be the ‘drain the swamp’ president, then don’t worry about the lobbyists and do what’s needed and waive the act,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush who oversaw disaster response for the agency. “We’re talking about people here.”
Trump waived the law Thursday.
After getting good marks from many for his administration’s response to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, Trump has struggled to find the right tone to address the harsher reviews after Maria. He has repeatedly praised his administration’s actions, telling reporters Friday that it has “been incredible the results we’ve had when it comes to loss of life” in Puerto Rico.
“We have done an incredible job considering there’s absolutely nothing to work with,” Trump said as he was leaving the White House for another weekend at Bedminster.
At the same time, Trump said “the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort. . .will be funded and organized,” and referred to the “tremendous amount of existing debt” on the island.
Trump’s top disaster response aides have blanketed television in recent days in an effort to reset the narrative. DHS Secretary Duke told reporters on Thursday outside the White House that Puerto Rico was a “good news story.” The comment seemed to unleash pent up fury from at least one local official, after days of offering praise to the Trump administration in an apparent effort to secure more federal help.
“I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said at a press conference Friday. “I am done being polite, I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell. . . We are dying here. If we don’t get the food an the water into the people’s hands, we are going to see something close to a genocide.”
Trump’s rosy assessment of the federal response has also contrasted sharply with the comments of federal and local officials on the ground.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, who was named this week to lead recovery efforts, told reporters Friday that there were not enough people and assets to help Puerto Rico recover from what has become a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the storm.
The military has significantly stepped up their mobilization to the island commonwealth with dozens more aircraft and thousands of soldiers to bring “more logistical support” to a struggling recovery effort that was delayed by geographical and tactical challenges.
Buchanan said that Defense Department forces have been in place since before the storm lashed Puerto Rico but that the arrival of additional resources is part of the natural shift in operations. Sometimes troops act ahead of the local government to meet needs, but they were also waiting for an “actual request” from territorial officials to bring in more resources. Buchanan will bring together land forces, including the Puerto Rico National Guard, to begin pushing into the interior of the island, where aid has been slowed by washed-out roads and difficult terrain. The Navy previously led the military response in Puerto Rico.
“No it’s not enough and that’s why we are bringing a lot more,” the three-star general said about the resources brought to Puerto Rico thus far. “It makes sense but it’s part of the natural flow of things.”
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The Washington Post’s Arelis R. Hernández in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and John Wagner and Joel Achenbach in Washington contributed to this report.