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Puerto Ricans More Concerned About Situation On Island Than Trump's Tweets


I'm Robert Siegel in Washington where President Trump has provoked another controversy today with a series of comments about Puerto Rico. Opining from the White House on Twitter this morning, the president criticized the island's electric utility and infrastructure as a disaster before Hurricane Maria hit three weeks ago. And he said U.S. military and emergency management personnel cannot stay on Puerto Rico forever. Well, once again, White House aides were called on to explain. And today it was Chief of Staff John Kelly.


JOHN KELLY: The tweet about FEMA and DOD - read military - is exactly accurate. They're not going to be there forever. And the whole point is to start to work yourself out of a job and then transition to the rebuilding process.

SIEGEL: The president also dinged Puerto Rico's fiscal health, writing this. Puerto Rico survived the hurricanes. Now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making. We'll have more about that in a moment. But first we turn to NPR's Tom Gjelten in San Juan. And Tom, what was the reaction there to the president's tweet?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, Robert I think it's fair to say there was some annoyance. That statement from John Kelly came after the governor here, Ricardo Rossello, called the White House this morning, asking for clarification of the president's comments. Now, later he did come out and say he's satisfied with what the White House told him, and he said he did not ask for an apology.

SIEGEL: They may figure that a fight with the White House is near the last on the list of things they need right now.

GJELTEN: Yeah, exactly. Or maybe they're choosing to listen instead to General Buchanan - Jeffrey Buchanan, the U.S. military commander here. He was quoted in the local press this morning saying FEMA will be here for many months and probably for many years. But I can tell you there is one point on which there is some sensitivity here, and that's any suggestion that Puerto Rico somehow doesn't warrant the same attention other parts of the country get.

Before Governor Rossello came out today, he sent a tweet reminding people Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and only want the support, quote, that any of our fellow citizens would receive across the nation. And then in a press conference this afternoon, he reiterated that point.


RICARDO ROSSELLO: We're not asking for anything that another U.S. jurisdiction, having passed through the same situation, wouldn't be asking at this juncture.

SIEGEL: Well, that's the Puerto Rican governor. What about the mood on the street? Is this something that's going to echo for a while among the residents of San Juan?

GJELTEN: I don't think it will, Robert. I mean, you know, at this regular morning press briefing that I was at today, I was the only reporter who asked about the president's tweet. This is a briefing that went on for more than an hour. Not a single Puerto Rican reporter asked about it. Every one of their questions was about the progress on restoring power and water on the island. That's clearly their top concern here for understandable reasons.

SIEGEL: And when it comes to restoring power and water, what kind of progress is there?

GJELTEN: It's still very slow. Only about 85 percent of the island is still without power. About 40 percent of the people have no water. And behind that figure, there is a big gap. Here in San Juan and in other urban areas, almost everybody does have water. But in the mountainous areas in the north of the country, two-thirds of the people still have no running water. I actually spoke this morning with the head of the water authority in Puerto Rico, Eli Diaz. And he acknowledged he's hearing complaints.

ELI DIAZ: We've had situations where there's a community that says, hey, just fix my pump station. I understand, but there's four pump stations before yours that need to get energy for yours to work.

GJELTEN: All in all, still a big mess here, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Tom, thanks.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.