WASHINGTON — On the defensive over the pace of federal help for Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans cleared the way Thursday for more supplies and government cash for the hurricane-ravaged U.S. island.
Trump waived federal restrictions on foreign ships delivering cargo. And House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief account will get a $6.7 billion boost by the end of the week. Trump and his advisers, meanwhile, defended the administration’s response to the devastation on the island, which was hit by Hurricane Maria Sept. 20 with many people left desperate for power, food and other supplies.
“The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot. Large numbers of generators are now on Island. Food and water on site,” Trump tweeted early in the day.
The developments Thursday came after Trump came under sharp criticism for what critics said was a too-slow response to a humanitarian crisis among Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents.
From the White House driveway to cable television, a squad of advisers defended the president’s response and described the relief efforts as well underway, with most hospitals “operational.”
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said she signed the waiver of a federal law called the Jones Act to clear the way for foreign-flagged ships to deliver supplies between U.S. ports.
“You are seeing devastation in Puerto Rico. That is the fault of the hurricane,” Duke told reporters in the White House driveway. “The relief effort is under control.”
Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, said the impression of a slow response isn’t so much wrong as it is outdated. He said more than 40 of the island’s 69 hospitals are accepting patients.
And FEMA Administrator Brock Long said the efforts have been hampered by damaged airports and ports on the island.
“The question is that last mile,” Long told CNN, speaking of the difficulty of getting aid all the way to those in need.
Ryan, meanwhile, said a “huge capital injection will occur in two days” to help Puerto Rico recover. He noted Trump had waived a matching funds requirement, which means the cash-strapped island won’t have to contribute to the initial costs of the federal assistance. The Wisconsin Republican said he expects the Trump administration to send Congress a request for a long-term recovery package once damage assessments are conducted.
“We will quickly act on that request,” Ryan said.
Duke said the shipping waiver came in response to a request from Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello. The waiver, the White House said, would go into effect immediately.
Rossello responded on Twitter to Trump’s action: “Thank you @POTUS.”
Duke had waived the law earlier this month to help ease fuel shortages in the Southeast following hurricanes Harvey and Irma. That order included Puerto Rico but expired last week, shortly after Maria struck.
The Trump administration initially said a waiver was not needed for Puerto Rico because there were enough U.S.-flagged ships available to ferry goods to the island.