After criticism, acting homeland security chief admits humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico 'is not satisfactory'

Duke appeared to change her tune after criticism.

ByABC News
September 29, 2017, 3:17 PM

— -- Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Secretary, said today that while she was "proud" of the federal response in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, the situation on the ground is still "not satisfactory."

"I am proud of the work that's being done," Duke told a press conference in San Juan this afternoon upon arriving in the U.S. territory. "Clearly, the situation here in Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane is not satisfactory."

Duke added that the progress she's seen so far today is "very, very strong," with more roads cleared, power being restored, hospitals reopening and potable water becoming readily available.

    It appeared to be an attempt by Duke to clarify earlier statements that had angered the mayor of Puerto Rico's capital city, in which the homeland security chief called the relief effort on the island "a good news story" with necessary supplies being delivered and federal agencies working hard to distribute those goods.

    "We are using air support when we can't get through. We are cleaning the roads regularly, we have expanded greatly, probably 90 percent of the island is accessible now," Duke told reporters outside the West Wing of the White House on Thursday.

    Reacting to Duke's remarks, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said today the situation on the ground was in fact "not a good news story."

    "Maybe from where she's standing, it's a good news story. When you are drinking from a creek, it's not a good news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good news story," Cruz said in an interview on CNN this morning. "I'm sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me."

    "I would ask her to come down here and visit the towns, and then make a statement like that, which, frankly, it's an irresponsible statement," Cruz added.

    The mayor then said she had a "message" for President Donald Trump to "step up" relief efforts for the "entire island of Puerto Rico," not just the capital of San Juan.

    "This is a message for President Trump: Thank you for calling San Juan yesterday and listening for our mayday call. There are 77 other towns that are waiting anxiously and will be very grateful to you and to the American people if you continue to step up to the moral imperative that you have taken on all over the world to help those in need. So help us," Cruz said on CNN this morning.

    Although some administration officials have remained defensive, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said today that the military response to the devastation from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico "is not enough."

    Buchanan, a three-star general appointed by the Pentagon to lead the U.S. military response to relief efforts in the U.S. territory, said the recovery and aid will "take time" to materialize.

    Trump, however, took to Twitter this morning to tout his administration's efforts in Puerto Rico and relayed praise he said he had received from the island's governor.

    "Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello just stated: 'The Administration and the President, every time we've spoken, they've delivered,'" the president tweeted.

    Trump also said that "big decisions" will need to be made about the costs of rebuilding the hurricane-battered island.

    "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," he tweeted.

    In an interview on CNN this morning, the president's homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, said Trump's tweets were "1000 percent right" that the federal government will have to look at how to handle rebuilding costs considering that the territory has $72 billion of debt.

    "With them being in debt, they don't have enough ready liquid cash to pay their normal share," Bossert told CNN. "What we'll do -- and the president has already done it -- give a 180-day cost-share adjustment, and the federal government is making sure lives are protected. We’ll worry about the big decisions later; that's the president's point."

    Bossert added, “The president is already doing what it takes. What he’s doing is what every good leader does is looking on the horizon for decisions that will come over the next three, four weeks and the next three, four months."

    Trump continued to criticize Puerto's Rico's finances in a speech this afternoon addressing the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C.

    "We're literally starting from scratch," the president said, adding that "virtually everything has been wiped out" by Hurricane Maria.

    "Ultimately, the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort -- [which] 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.

    Maria made landfall as a major Category 4 hurricane in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, killing at least 16 people, knocking out power and devastating the island's agriculture. Residents at the time were still recovering from the powerful Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier that had unleashed heavy rain and high winds.

    Trump announced Tuesday he will make his first visit to Puerto Rico next week after critics -- both Democrats and Republicans -- accused his administration of a lackluster response to the catastrophic damage left by Maria.

    Meanwhile, more than 9,000 cargo containers filled with necessary supplies have arrived at a port in San Juan but have yet to be distributed to those in need.

    "The whole supply chain of distribution has been interrupted," Jose Ayala, vice president of Crowley Puerto Rico Services, told ABC News. "We need to restore the electricity power, we need to restore our roads, we need to restore communications, we need to start moving the diesel around the island."

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency told ABC News that any aid it has delivered to Puerto Rico has been immediately distributed.

    "There's not a single trailer from FEMA or from response operations that are being held," said Alex de la Campa, the agency's Caribbean-area division director.

    At a press conference this morning, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced his government will buy cargo containers from private companies if necessary to make sure goods are distributed. He said he will not allow food, water and medical supplies to remain stuck at ports due to a "lack of execution."

    ABC News' Joshua Hoyos, Adam Kelsey, Mariam Khan and Alex Perez contributed to this report.

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