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White House is committed to long-term Puerto Rico recovery despite Trump tweets, says Gov. Rosselló

Puerto Rico’s painfully slow recovery from Hurricane Maria has alarmed the island’s residents and become the subject of a political fight. President Trump tweeted that federal aid in Puerto Rico cannot continue “forever,” drawing criticism from San Juan’s mayor. P.J. Tobia reports, then Judy Woodruff speaks with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló about the aid citizens on the island are receiving.

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    Puerto Rico's recovery from Hurricane Maria remains very slow, and outright alarming for anyone on the island. It's also increasingly the subject of a political fight with the president.

    P.J. Tobia begins with this report.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    It's been three weeks since Hurricane Maria blasted the length of Puerto Rico, and the people of the U.S. territory are just beginning the long journey to recovery.

  • JULIA RIVERA, San Lorenzo Resident (through interpreter):

    Well, we are hoping they will build us a new bridge, because the road to get out of here is very uphill. It takes like an hour-and-a-half or two hours to get out of here.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    As they struggle, the political fight over their fate is escalating. President Trump has mentioned the cost of rebuilding Puerto Rico, as when he visited the island nine days ago.


    Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you have thrown our budget a little out of whack, because we have spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that's fine.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Today, the president tweeted: "We cannot keep FEMA, the military and the first-responders in Puerto Rico forever."

    The president has also repeatedly traded verbal fire with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. She's publicly criticized the federal response as too slow.

    In her own tweet today, Cruz slammed Mr. Trump's latest words as unbecoming of a commander in chief. She said he seemed to be acting more as a hater in chief.

    Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, has generally made approving statements of the federal effort. Today, in response to the president, he tweeted: "The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our nation."

    Later, the White House chief of staff, General John Kelly, addressed the dust-up.

    JOHN KELLY, White House Chief of Staff: Our country will stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done, but the tweet about FEMA and DOD, read, military, is exactly accurate. They are not going to be there forever.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Meanwhile, most Puerto Ricans are a long way from returning to normal lives.

    As of this week, more than 80 percent are still without power. Just 37 percent of cell phone towers on the island have been restored to service, and nearly 6,000 people remain in shelters, unable to return to what's left of their homes.

    Nearly 40 percent of the island's residents still don't have access to drinking water. And even for those who do, fears are building about the safety of that water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned on Wednesday that some people may have been getting water from hazardous Superfund sites, and it also reported raw sewage is seeping into waterways in places like Catano on the northern coast.

    It raises the prospect of disease outbreaks.

  • BRUCE OTERO, Cataño Resident:

    It's very difficult for the people around here,. Besides whatever they lost here, they're also — they are not healthy.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    On top of that, there've been reports of hoarding and black marketeering. Governor Rossello has ordered an investigation of aid distribution. And he warns there will be hell to pay for any who mishandle the effort.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm P.J. Tobia.


    A short time ago, I spoke with the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, who was at the Convention Center in San Juan.

    Governor Rossello, thank you very much for talking with us.

    Were you upset when you saw President Trump's tweets today?


    I wanted clarification.

    And that's why I called immediately to the White House to make sure that we got some clarification on what the statements meant. You know, we have heard the president, the vice president. They had come over here to Puerto Rico and established a commitment to be with Puerto Rico for the long haul.

    So, the response was in the affirmative. I spoke to Chief of Staff General Kelly, and he expressed that, yes, that they will be here for the long haul. Yes, they will treat U.S. citizens that live in Puerto Rico equally to those that live in Texas and in Florida and in other parts of the United States. So, I called upon him for clarification, and we got it.


    So, how do you interpret what the president meant when he said FEMA can't and others can't be there forever?

    Have you been given a limit on how — on the time and resources they're prepared to spend?


    My job is not to interpret. That's why I asked directly. I asked directly what it meant.

    They said that they meant that in the context of any recovery effort that would be quicker, that would reach their people to normalcy would be better.

    Of course, our situation is very complex here in Puerto Rico. I know that the president, state governors, and congressmen understand this. And that is why we need all of the resources and all hands on deck at this juncture.


    One other question about that.

    The president also tweeted, Governor Rossello, that this was a crisis, a financial crisis of Puerto Rico's own making. And he went on to say that Puerto Rico's infrastructure, electric grid was a disaster before the hurricane.

    Do you agree?


    Well, we did have — we were in a fiscal crunch. There is no doubt about that.

    We have a fiscal oversight board in Puerto Rico. I arrived in office about eight months ago and started working on a fiscal plan that was very aggressive, that would empower our economy to grow.

    But it is true there were some — a lot of fiscal limitations and challenge, but we were addressing them. But, certainly, there was weak infrastructure. And that's why I'm asking, for us, instead of rebuilding, putting back the same grid over again, let's take this moment to invest that capital into making a better grid, making Puerto Rico look as it should, not as it looked in the past.


    Well, there are now reports, Governor, of people hoarding supplies, of maybe there being a black market, of local politicians favorites.

    How much of that is going on, and what are you doing about it?


    Well, two things.

    We heard about that and immediately took action. Here's what we did. We started deploying National Guard to all of the municipalities to help with the distribution, in case it was a circumstance where the mayors were just not executing properly.

    Secondly, we sent out certain people from our Treasury Department to make accountability of what was being distributed. And, thirdly, I ordered investigations from the federal prosecutor and our Department of Justice to investigate if there were, in effect, hoarding by public officials.

    And my petition was clear. If there is hoarding, there was going to be hell the pay by those officials. I should state — I should state that a lot of the mayors and a lot of the local leadership is doing a phenomenal job, but certainly, if some are not, and the resources are getting there and they're not being distributed to the people, you know, severe actions needs to be taken.


    Separately, Governor, you have come under some criticism for understating the problems that your hospitals face. Can you set us straight on that?


    I'm not understating it.

    As a matter of fact, I think we have a significant problem with our hospitals. We have been able to elevate it — elevate them to functionality, so that they can have, you know, running water, electricity, and so forth.

    But it is a very frail system, Judy. And it's going to take a long time to reestablish it. That's why the proper resources to come to Puerto Rico are essentially. Certainly, public health emergencies and assuring the people that they have access to good quality care in hospitals is a longer-term potential problem.

    We want to make sure we address them. The status of our system is frail. It depends on energy. We have generators empowering most of those hospitals. And that's just not a sustainable solution. So, what we are focusing on, on this now immediate run is to make sure that we can reestablish a fully functional hospital system, and not only the hospitals, but dialysis centers, the homes for the elderly, and so forth.

    So, it is by no means a system that is doing well. It is stabilized somewhat. But if we don't act appropriately and with the proper resources, it is a system that could collapse.


    And, finally, Governor, there is some suspicion that has been out there the death toll, which I believe now at 45, could be much higher than that. Could that be the case?


    It could be the case.

    And we have been saying this since the death toll was about 16. Then it went up to 30 and so forth. Right now, we're making all of the assessments to make sure that we have all the information from our forensic centers, from our hospitals, from — you know, from the different towns to make sure we have access to that direct and indirect death list of — or death toll from the hurricane.

    So we're updating it as quickly as possible. We have meetings every day with the different stakeholders. And, of course, our hope is that it doesn't rise too much. But, certainly, after a devastating hurricane such as this, Category 5 hitting the whole of the island, we're estimating hundreds of thousands of houses completely destroyed here in Puerto Rico.

    You have to brace yourself for the reality that that number could certainly increase.


    Well, Governor, we certainly wish you the very best with the ongoing recovery efforts.

    Governor Ricardo Rossello, thank you.


    Thank you so much, Judy.

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