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Trump Lauds Government Response To Hurricane Maria


As Hurricane Florence continues its drive toward the Carolina coast, President Trump is calling the federal response to another hurricane an incredible unsung success. He's talking about the government's efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island nearly a year ago. Here's more of what Trump said at the White House yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think in a certain way, the best job we did was Puerto Rico. But nobody would understand that. I mean, that's - it's harder to understand. It was a very hard thing to do because of the fact - they had no electric. Before the storms hit, it was dead, as you probably know. So we've gotten a lot of receptivity, a lot of thanks for the job we've done in Puerto Rico.

SHAPIRO: Nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico died from Hurricane Maria according to the official count. In a moment, we'll hear from a Puerto Rican lawmaker. First, NPR's Adrian Florido has been reporting on the island's recovery over the last year and joins us. Hi, Adrian.


SHAPIRO: President Trump noted that the response was challenging since Puerto Rico is an island. But he has often said that the federal government did a great job in its response. Give us some context here.

FLORIDO: Yeah, you're right. You know, it started less than two weeks after the storm when the president visited Puerto Rico and bragged about how well FEMA was responding. You probably remember that he threw rolls of paper towels out into the crowd of residents and talked about the fact that only 16 people had been confirmed dead as a result of the storm at that point.

And, well, Ari, as you just mentioned, a couple of weeks ago we learned from a government-commissioned study that an estimated 2,975 people died from the storm, many of them in the days and months after the hurricane, which means that a lot of those deaths happened while first responders were on the ground.

SHAPIRO: You have lived on the island for most of the last year. Describe what FEMA did and what it failed to do.

FLORIDO: So FEMA - I mean, it distributed tons of emergency supplies. It has paid for the repairs to the electric grid. It put a lot of blue tarps on people's damaged homes. It's processed applications for grants so that people can repair their homes. The list goes on and on. But we also know that those things often happened slowly and inefficiently and that many grant applications were denied. A big part of the problem was that FEMA was not prepared for a storm as large as Hurricane Maria at the same time that it was responding to hurricanes Irma and Harvey on an island whose infrastructure was as fragile as Puerto Rico's. And FEMA itself has admitted that it was not prepared to deal with all of those factors at once.

SHAPIRO: Give us an example of how FEMA was caught off guard.

FLORIDO: OK, so take emergency food and water and tarps, right? FEMA had this one massive warehouse on the island where it stored this stuff. But you know what? After Hurricane Irma, which had passed through the Caribbean just a few days earlier, FEMA - earlier, FEMA sent all of those supplies to the Virgin Islands. So its warehouse in Puerto Rico was completely empty. Listen to what Reynaldo Colon, FEMA's warehouse manager on the island, told me when I visited the warehouse just a few months ago.

When you saw Maria coming and you looked around this warehouse and it was empty, what was going through your mind?

REYNALDO COLON: I mean, wow. I mean, what are we going to do, you know?

FLORIDO: So you knew it was going to be a problem.

COLON: It was going to be a problem.

FLORIDO: And in fact, it turned out to be a problem, Ari. It took FEMA a long time to get supplies back onto the island after that.

SHAPIRO: And just briefly, Adrian, we've talked about the federal government's response. How would you describe the local government's response?

FLORIDO: So there were so many issues on the island even before the hurricane - that the power grid was in bad shape. The communication systems were fragile. The local government's hurricane response plan was way out of date and written for a Category 1 hurricane. Maria made landfall as a Category 4. Emergency responders were not properly trained. And all of those things did make it harder for FEMA and for the local government to work together to help people get the help that they needed and to save lives.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Adrian Florido, thank you.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.