(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump hit back at criticism he hasn’t done enough to help Puerto Rico recover from devastating 2017 hurricanes, accusing the island’s government of mishandling disaster relief funds and praising his administration’s efforts.
“Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being,” Trump told reporters Thursday as he departed the White House for a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “They don’t know how to spend the money” and aren’t doing so “wisely,” he said.
Trump’s comments come just days after he told Republican Senators that Puerto Rico had received too much disaster aid compared with other states and has failed to use it properly. He made the remarks as Republicans and Democrats were negotiating the details of a disaster package.
Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and as Congress debates further assistance, its residents are at risk of losing food aid by the end of the month. Unlike U.S. states that have guaranteed nutrition assistance funding, Puerto Rico’s program is run as a limited block grant. The additional funds provided in the wake of Maria are running out.
Even the resources from previously approved aid packages for Puerto Rico have been slow to reach those in need. So far, the commonwealth has identified 7,505 rebuilding sites and delivered 4,792 reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking major repairs. Only 67 projects are proceeding, according to Puerto Rico’s government. In a similar period after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the last U.S. hurricane approaching Maria’s magnitude, more than 9,000 were underway.
Puerto Rican officials say part of the difficulty in accessing relief money is a requirement that FEMA control disbursements, unlike mainland jurisdictions where local officials do. Even in the immediate aftermath of the storms, the federal government had different standards for the island than for similar storms in Florida and Texas, according to a University of Michigan report.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who has clashed with Trump over disaster aid and has complained that residents of the U.S. territory are treated like "second-class citizens," indicated Thursday that he’s tired of being pushed around by the White House.
“If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth," Rossello told CNN. "It would be a mistake to confuse courtesy with courage."
(Updates with governor’s comments in final two paragraphs.)
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