Trump meets Puerto Rico storm survivors

3 min

Guaynabo (Puerto Rico) (AFP)

President Donald Trump shook hands with storm survivors on the US island of Puerto Rico Tuesday, during a trip designed to quiet critics who branded his initial response slow and ham-fisted.

Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visited the municipality of Guaynabo, walking among trees felled by Hurricane Maria's jet-blast winds.

He asked residents about their homes, posing for photos and softly shot paper towels basketball-style into a crowd.

Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria thrashed through the US territory, much of the island remains short of food and without access to power or drinking water.

The administration's critics said the early response was not fast enough or on a scale that could help the island's 3.4 million American citizens.

Shortly after touching down at Muniz Air National Guard Base at the beginning of his five hour trip, Trump rallied disaster management workers telling them they "can be very proud" of their response.

But many of the pugilistic president's comments appeared to be aimed at quieting his own critics, inviting officials to say "nice things" about the response and contrasting it with previous storms.

"We saved a lot of lives." Trump said, comparing the outcome favorably to that of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans in 2005.

"If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and what happened here with a storm that was just totally overbearing."

"No one has ever seen anything like that. What is your death count?" he asked. So far 16 people are confirmed dead from the storm.

"I hate to tell you Puerto Rico but you threw our budget a little out of whack, but that's fine," Trump said.

- Choreographed -

Before traveling to the island Trump had feuded with local officials over the pace of the relief effort, berating San Juan's mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and suggesting Puerto Ricans were "ingrates" who "want everything to be done for them."

Luckily for the White House, few Puerto Ricans have had the time or -- quite literally the energy -- to read or hear of the president's barbed remarks.

There has been some anger in Puerto Rico that Trump chose to visit Guaynabo -- a relatively affluent middle class area, where most homes are of weather-proof concrete -- unlike in the worst-hit areas of the island.

But the president's visit was carefully choreographed to avoid any embarrassing protests.

Along the route of his motorcade at least one sign declared him a "bad hombre."

A dozen protestors could be seen in front of San Juan's Convention Center, where the government established their operations.

Later Trump was scheduled to survey the damage from the air before landing on the USS Kearsarge to greet Navy and Marine Corps servicemen and women.

Already this storm season, Trump has visited damaged areas of Florida, Louisiana and Texas (twice).

But his trip to Puerto Rico, normally a fairly routine show of presidential empathy, has taken on outsized political meaning.

Though Puerto Ricans are US citizens with US passports, they can only vote in presidential primaries.

If they live on the island, they cannot vote in US presidential elections. If they are living on the mainland, they can register to vote including for president, in whichever state they live.