White House ‘committed’ to Puerto Rico relief after Trump criticism

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House said on Thursday that it was “committed” to disaster relief in Puerto Rico after President Donald Trump said government response teams could not stay in the U.S. territory “forever.”

Trump’s comments, in several Twitter posts on Thursday morning, came hours before the House of Representatives was set to vote on $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other recent disaster-hit areas.

Lawmakers are expected to approve the bipartisan measure, which will also provide funds for the storm-struck areas of Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as fire-ravaged California. Leaders of both major parties have lauded the bill.

Trump criticized Puerto Rico on Twitter for “a total lack of accountability,” saying “electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.”

While he noted it was up to “Congress to decide how much to spend,” he also said: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees disaster response in the United States.

Puerto Rico is burdened with nearly $72 billion in pre-hurricane debt, overseen by a federally-created board. Much of the island remains without electricity or running water three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Asked for a response to Trump’s remarks, the White House said it was “committed to helping Puerto Rico” and working with local leaders and Congress “to identify the best fiscally responsible path forward.”

“Successful recoveries do not last forever; they should be as swift as possible to help people resume their normal lives,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Trump’s comments prompted swift condemnation from some Democratic lawmakers, who said withdrawing help from Puerto Rico would amount to abandoning U.S. citizens as the island struggles with the storm’s aftermath.

Democratic Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York, which has a large Puerto Rican community, said on the House floor that the island is facing a “humanitarian crisis” and the U.S. government must “make them whole.”

“The president of the United States is tweeting out threats to withdraw assistance, that is an outrage, that is an insult,” Velazquez said.

Roberto Morales Santos, 70, looks out after posing for a portrait in his home, damaged by Hurricane Maria, in the municipality of Barranquitas outside San Juan, Puerto Rico October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, which also has a sizeable Puerto Rican community, told Reuters that he had urged Trump to create a high-level task force to provide ideas and advice for helping rebuild the island, and that the president was receptive to the idea.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he would be traveling to Puerto Rico on Friday as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation to assess the damage and be briefed by officials.

“We need to stand with the people of Puerto Rico as they work to rebuild their communities,” Ryan told reporters.

The House bill includes $18.7 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund. Of that, $4.9 billion is earmarked for loans to local governments to ensure that cash-strapped Puerto Rico can keep government programs operating beyond Oct. 31, when funds are otherwise due to run out.

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“FEMA will be w/Puerto Rico, USVI, every state, territory impacted by a disaster every day, supporting throughout their response & recovery,” FEMA spokeswoman Eileen Lainez wrote on Twitter after Trump’s comments.

Other funds include $576.5 million for the federal government’s wildfire control efforts.

Some $16 billion would go toward the National Flood Insurance Program to help it cover claims after reaching its borrowing limit.

Once passed by the Republican-led House, the Senate, also controlled by Republicans, is expected to take up the package later this month after it returns from a week-long recess.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed that additional federal assistance would likely be needed.

“We’re going to need more assistance as the days, the months go,” said Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, a state also dealing with hurricane aftermath.

Velazquez called Thursday’s bill a “down payment in helping the response” in Puerto Rico and other areas affected by hurricanes and wildfires.

“Let’s be clear there is going to need to be much more assistance in the future,” Velazquez said.

Reporting by Amanda Becker, Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O’Brien