Trump Tours Storm-Ravaged Puerto Rico; Death Toll Number Rises

WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday torued storm-ravaged Puerto Rico Tuesday as the island struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.

The president and first lady arrived at the Muniz Air National Guard Base aboard Air Force 1 just before noon.

PHOTOS: Trump Tours Storm Damage In Puerto Rico

Trump says Puerto Rico suffered a relatively low death toll from Hurricane Maria compared with “a real catastrophe like Katrina,” which killed more than a thousand people in 2005.

At the time of Trump’s visit, officials had said at least 16 people had died. But late Tuesday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said the official death toll had has been increased to 34 from 16.

Rossello also said he believes the hurricane caused $90 billion in damage across the island.

Trump spoke as he toured the island Tuesday. He pledged an all-out effort to help Puerto Rico.

The president said that while “every death is a horror,” he drew a distinction between “a real catastrophe like Katrina” and “what happened here” in Puerto Rico.

He also said Puerto Rico has cost a lot of money and has “thrown our budget a little out of whack.”

The administration is expected to announce a multi-billion dollar disaster relief package for Puerto Rico as soon as this weekend, but no exact amount has been announced, CBS2’s Brian Conybeare reported. 

Trump met with first responders, local officials, residents and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and was expected to spend about five hours touring the U.S. territory.

The president says Puerto Rico’s electrical power, virtually knocked out by Hurricane Maria, is headed toward flickering on again.

“It’s being fixed” he told reporters Tuesday during his first visit to the island. He added that the power grid was “devastated before the hurricanes even hit.”

He said lots of generators have been brought to the island and most hospitals are at least partially open.

Trump said “The job that’s been done here is really nothing short of a miracle.” 

He has come under fire for what critics said was a slow response to the devastation. Maria wiped out power to Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people and left them short of food, water and supplies.

Rossello said he hopes the visit will help the president understand the magnitude of the damage and recovery efforts.

“In Texas and in Florida, we get an A plus. And I’ll tell you what, I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico and it’s actually a much tougher situation,” Trump told reporters before leaving Tuesday morning.

Ninety-five percent of customers still do not have electricity, including hospitals and federal officials warned some could go without power for up to 10 months.

“All federal agencies are working tirelessly, but we all recognize that we need to do a lot more,” Rosselló said.

While slow, 60 percent of gas stations on the island are now operational and 45 percent of customers have access to drinking water. And there are long lines — some six to seven hours long — for what limited food and water there is available.

Cash at banks is running low, too.

“The line is long. Everybody wants to buy food, water, groceries,” one man said.

“Let’s be real: If this had been the United States, none of this would have been happening,” a woman added.

Some 10,000 U.S. troops and federal emergency responders are not on the island, handing out ready-to-eat meals and bottles of water.

“I’ve never seen people working so hard in my life,” Trump said.

“As of today, we have delivered 5.5 million liters of water and five million meals,” FEMA Region II Director Alejandro De La Campa said.

One of the biggest challenges has been distributing emergency supplies. With roads and communication networks down, truck drivers were not on the job and shipments got stuck at ports.

“We need their truck drivers. Their drivers have to start driving trucks,” Trump said. “We have to do that. So on a local level, they have to give us more help.”

FEMA has now established regional distribution ports and is targeting isolated, rural areas where some people are getting their water from a natural spring.

The mayor of San Juan has been publicly critical of what she called the “inefficient” U.S. response. However, the president said her tone is changing.

“Whether it’s her or anybody else, they’re all starting to say it,” Trump said. “I appreciate very much the governor and his comments. He has said we have done an incredible job, and that’s the truth.”

The two were seen shaking hands Tuesday.

“I would hope that the president of the United States stops spouting comments that really hurt the people of Puerto Rico, because rather than Commander in Chief, he sort of becomes mis-communicator in chief,” Cruz said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo weighed in on the president’s trip. 

“I think it’s good that he is going there now. I think it would have been better if he had gone earlier,” he told WCBS 880’s Sean Adams.

The governor was also critical of FEMA.

“They should have done before the storm what they’re doing now,” he said.

Cuomo said FEMA should have redeployed and anticipated the unique challenges of helping an island with limited resources and less than robust infrastructure.

Meanwhile, New York is sending another shipment of medicine and medical equipment for hospitals. One hundred New York doctors and 200 nurses have volunteered to go to Puerto Rico.

On Long Island, Stony Brook Medicine will send a team of 24 doctors, nurses and paramedics, along with supplies. 

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky told WCBS 880’s Sophia Hall that he sent an email Friday asking for volunteers to help out.

“All day Saturday, all day Sunday I’ve been answering emails from people wanting to volunteer their time — how can they help?” he said. “So we are putting together — in concert with Greater New York Hospital Association, in concert with the needs of people on Puerto Rico — how we can help.”

They also want to help medical students on the island by accommodating them at Stony Brook.

“To help their training continue and not be completely disrupted by this natural disaster,” Kaushansky said.

On Monday, members of the FDNY DART team handed out pouches of ready-to-eat meals to never-ending lines of residents in Aguadilla.

The volunteers, who have been on the island for about a week, were finally able to get a truck from the American Red Cross.

Once he returns from Puerto Rico, the president will travel to Las Vegas to meet with victims’ families Wednesday.

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