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Despite massive death toll, Trump calls Puerto Rico hurricane response 'an incredible, unsung success'

Updated 8:48 PM ET, Tue September 11, 2018

Washington (CNN) - President Donald Trump touted his administration's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as "an incredible, unsung success" during an Oval Office briefing on the upcoming hurricane bearing down on the Carolinas.

His comments run counter to how many locals and experts have assessed the federal government's response.

"I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful," Trump said, noting that the island location is "tough" during a hurricane due to the inability to transport vital equipment and supplies by truck. "It was one of the best jobs that's ever been done with respect to what this is all about."

Earlier this month, the island's governor formally raised the death toll from the 2017 storm to an estimated 2,975 from 64 following a study conducted by researchers at George Washington University. The study accounted for Puerto Ricans who succumbed to the stifling heat and other aftereffects of the storm and had not been previously counted in official figures. Much of the US territory was without power for weeks.

Trump on Tuesday, alongside Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long, said the island's electric grid had been already "in bad shape."

The President praised the job FEMA and law enforcement did in Puerto Rico as "an incredible, unsung success."

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been a vocal critic of the administration's handling of the storm, has cast blame on the federal government for failing to provide adequate assistance in the aftermath of the storm, and slammed Trump's assertion Tuesday.

"In a humanitarian crisis, you should not be grading yourself. You should not be just having a parade of self-accolades. You should never be content with everything we did. I'm not content with everything I did, I should have done more. We should all have done more," Cruz told CNN's Anderson Cooper later Tuesday evening.

She continued, "But the President continues to refuse to acknowledge his responsibility, and the problem is that if he didn't acknowledge it in Puerto Rico, God bless the people of South Carolina and the people of North Carolina."

Cruz said she spoke with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Wilmington, North Carolina, Mayor Bill Saffo to "just (let) them know, we know how it feels."

"We know how much they're going to have ahead of them," she said.

While the President has frequently praised the government response in the year since the hurricane, others in the administration have acknowledged learned lessons.

Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office released a report that revealed FEMA had been so overwhelmed with storms by the time Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico that more than half of the workers it was deploying to disasters were known to be unqualified for the jobs they were doing in the field.

And Long said FEMA had made changes to some of its priorities and procedures.

"We made a lot of changes in real time in addition to the high-level efforts that we learned through our after-action process. Bottom line is, we are concentrating on what we call critical lifelines -- health, safety, security. You know, we've got food, shelter, health and medical, power and fuel, communications, transportation, hazardous waste," he told reporters on a conference call on Hurricane Lane preparations last month.

Long continued: "We are hyper-focused on those seven critical lifelines because we realized last year that if any one of those lifelines goes down, then life safety is in jeopardy. And so we're reorganizing the firepower of the federal government underneath these critical lifelines, we're pushing forward."

Trump said Tuesday that Tropical Storm Isaac, which had been downgraded from hurricane status overnight, currently poses a threat to Puerto Rico.

"We do not want to see Hurricane Isaac hit Puerto Rico," he said.


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