The U.S. territory of 3.4 million people is reeling from Hurricane Maria, which struck on Sept. 20 as the most powerful storm to hit the island in nearly 90 years, causing widespread flooding, completely cutting power and heavily damaging homes, roads and other infrastructure.
The storm claimed more than 30 lives across the Caribbean, including at least 16 in Puerto Rico. Governor Ricardo Rossello has called the scope of the island’s devastation unprecedented.
The U.S. military, which has poured thousands of troops into the relief effort, named Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan to oversee its response on the island.
Buchanan, Army chief for the military’s U.S. Northern Command, was expected to arrive in Puerto Rico later on Thursday. He will be the Pentagon’s main liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. government’s lead agency on the island, and focus on aid distribution, the Pentagon said in a statement.
FEMA has placed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in charge of rebuilding the island’s crippled power grid, which has posed one of the island’s biggest challenges after the storm.
In yet another move raising the administration’s profile in the crisis, acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, whose department includes FEMA, will visit Puerto Rico on Friday with other senior government officials to meet with the governor, local authorities and federal relief workers, her office announced.
Taking to Twitter on Thursday, Trump again praised the government’s performance, saying FEMA and other first responders were “doing a GREAT job.”
But he complained about media coverage, adding, “Wish press would treat fairly!”
He later added another tweet after he spoke with the governor of Puerto Rico, saying ” Puerto Rico is devastated. Phone system, electric grid many roads, gone. FEMA and First Responders are amazing. Governor said ‘great job!'”
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, like Trump a Republican, had earlier called for appointment of a single authority to oversee all hurricane relief efforts, and said the Defense Department should mostly be in charge.
“I’m arguing that at least when it comes to logistics the federal government is going to have to lead, and they’re going to have to put someone there with the authority to make these decisions and execute on them fairly quickly,” Rubio told CNN.
Democratic U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the crisis was shifting from a natural disaster to a man-made one, adding that the government’s response had been “shamefully slow and undersized and should be vastly upgraded and increased.”
Speaking on the Senate floor, he called for as many as 50,000 troops “not to occupy the island, not to enforce martial law” but to coordinate logistics and the delivery of aid and basic necessities.
Even as FEMA and the U.S. military have stepped up relief efforts, many residents in Puerto Rico have been frustrated over the prolonged lack of electricity, drinking water and other essentials.