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1 year later: Political storm over Puerto Rico

FILE - In this Oct. 3, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd at Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Trump congratulated Puerto Rico for escaping the higher death toll of "a real catastrophe like Katrina" and heaped praise on the relief efforts of his administration without mentioning the sharp criticism the federal response has drawn. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria barreled across the Caribbean and devastated Puerto Rico, the island has become the focal point of a stormy political debate involving Congress and the White House over how the Trump Administration responded to the disaster.

President Trump’s tweet this week, asserting that Democrats highlighted the death toll of nearly 3,000 to make him look bad, stunned lawmakers — including Republicans.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Friday said she didn’t want to dwell on the president’s comments, but felt compelled to respond on behalf of hurricane victims.

“The attitude from the administration and the Republican Congress is unacceptable,” she said at a U.S. Capitol news conference, flanked by other Democrats. “We have a moral obligation to do better, not only to finish the job in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but to prevent the same type of inadequate response from ever happening again.”

One of those joining Pelosi was Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress. She noted the hurricane that struck Puerto Rico led to massive power outages and “the longest blackout in American history.” She also called the president’s tweets “shameful.”

“As president of the United States your very first responsibility is to protect the lives of American citizens after disasters,” she said. “Instead, your administration created a humanitarian crisis through inadequate preparation and an incompetent response.”

The Democratic lawmakers called on the administration to support more funding for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as back a formal review into what went wrong.

President Trump has aggressively defended the administration’s response to last year’s hurricanes and called the efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico an “unsung success.”

While some Republican lawmakers have distanced themselves from the president’s comments on Puerto Rico and the death toll, others say they understand his frustration with lingering criticism.

“The idea that a year after the fact we’re complaining — look, we’ve gone back in and done a really pretty amazing job of trying to rebuild,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), noting the island’s infrastructure was in poor shape before the hurricane. “I don’t how the relief effort could have done any better than it did, quite frankly.”

A month after the hurricanes, in October of last year, Congress approved at $36.5 billion disaster relief package, which included money for Puerto Rico.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it has spent billions of dollars in Puerto Rico, restoring power and helping with property repairs and a massive cleanup.


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