Washington — President Donald Trump pledged a relentless effort to help Puerto Ricans recover from hurricane devastation Friday after his homeland security chief stirred a tempest of her own making by declaring the federal response 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."
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 all appropriate agencies of the government "are 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 organised, 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 to survey damage and meet local officials. Asked about her Thursday "good news" comment, she said: "There is so much more to do. We will never be satisfied. That is why we are here." She had described "our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths" as the good news.
"Let me clarify," she said Friday, explaining that she meant "it was good news that people of Puerto Rico and many public servants of the United States are working together."
Trump has come out with a flurry of boasts in recent days about the positive reviews he said his administration is getting from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for its relief effort. Many in the devastated zones have said help is scarce and disorganized and food supplies are dwindling in some remote towns after Hurricane Maria.
Trump is expected to survey the damage Tuesday.