Exclusive tour of damage, relief operations in Puerto Rico

Friday, October 13, 2017
Exclusive look at Puerto Rico relief efforts
EMBED <>More Videos

As Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy reviewed operations in Puerto Rico on Thursday with officers and soldiers on the ground, ABC7's Leah Hope toured the damage with him.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Emergency relief efforts are underway in Puerto Rico and taking the lead in the army's mission is Acting U.S. Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy.

ABC7's Leah Hope flew with McCarthy, a native of the northern suburbs, to Puerto Rico earlier Thursday for an exclusive tour of the damage.

A first-hand view of the operation in Puerto Rico for the acting secretary of the U.S. Army.

Secretary McCarthy reviewed operations in Puerto Rico on Thursday with officers and soldiers on the ground.

We embedded with the secretary during the visit to see some of the damage and operations.

"Getting a bird's-eye view and talk to leaders. Clearly there are a lot of families suffering and tremendous challenges in front of them," said Acting Sec. of the U.S. Army Ryan McCarthy.

Operations include a helicopter making air drops of supplies and a mobile hospital set up in hard hit Humacao.

With over 10,000 soldiers on the island, the secretary and those stationed here are aware there is still great need.

The acting secretary says his cannot focus on the criticism but the work ahead.

"This is what we do and we know we're making tremendous results and improving people's lives every day until we get Puerto Rico back to normalcy," said Sec. McCarthy.

After meeting with command staff, they will evaluate what they are doing and what more needs to be done.

Trump: We cannot aid Puerto Rico 'forever'

President Donald Trump suggested Thursday that Puerto Rico is going to have to shoulder more responsibility for recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria, saying the federal government's emergency responders can't stay there "forever."

His comments -- in which he also blamed the beleaguered island for a financial crisis "largely of their own making" and infrastructure that was a "disaster" before the hurricane -- come as Puerto Rico still reels from a lack of electricity, public health access and a rising death toll. The remarks quickly prompted cries from Democratic lawmakers, who argue that Puerto Rico still needs a lot of help, as well as the mayor of San Juan, who said they were "unbecoming" and appeared to come from a "hater in chief."

Meanwhile, Texas and Florida -- two states Trump won during last year's presidential election -- also were struck by severe hurricanes recently, but the President has made no public indication that the federal government is pulling back on its response there.

The President wrote in two separate tweets, "'Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.' says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of........accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend..."

He continued in a third tweet: "We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!"

Attkisson is a journalist who works for conservative Sinclair Broadcasting.

Chicago reaction to Trump's tweets

In a scathing statement, the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, accused Trump of disregarding the moral imperative. In Chicago, the response was similar.

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and 90 percent of the island remains without power; one-third of it lacks clean running water. Despite that, Trump warned Puerto Ricans that federal help will end.

"Puerto Rican people are on their knees, they are down, they are weak, hurting, dying. They need inspiration not blame and finger pointing," said community activist Rousemary Vega.

About 200 Chicagoans of Puerto Rican descent and supporters from across the city gathered for a town hall meeting in Humboldt Park on Thursday evening to demand that the federal government mobilize all possible resources to save lives on the island.

In his Puerto Rico tweet firestorm, Trump also blamed the U.S. territory for its financial problems and called its electricity and infrastructure a disaster before the hurricane hit.

In a written statement, the mayor of San Juan responded saying, "I ask every American that has love, and not hate in their hearts to stand with Puerto Rico and let this President know we WILL NOT BE LEFT TO DIE."

"We are very upset that we have a president doesn't understand its own citizens and has no empathy," said Puerto Rican Arts Alliance Executive Director Carlos Hernandez.

Carlos Hernandez with Chicago's Puerto Rican Arts Alliance said the president acts like he is unaware that Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1917. A point Congressman Luis Gutierrez also made in response to Trump's tweets.

"I thought of the thousands who fought in Korea in World War II, Afghanistan and Iraq, lost their lives, never came back. They gave something eternal to the United States of America, their lives. They paid the highest tax and now this president wants to talk about how long," said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, (D) Chicago.

Despite Trump's tweets, the White House and House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to clarify the federal response to Puerto Rico. Ryan said federal aid will continue as long as the humanitarian crisis continues. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said the U.S. will stand with the American citizens of Puerto Rico until the job is done.

Dire situation

Trump's tweets come three weeks after the hurricane first struck the island, which remains largely without power. The death toll from the storm has risen to 45, authorities have said, and at least 113 people remain unaccounted for, according to Karixia Ortiz, a spokeswoman for Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety.

The recovery has moved slowly since Maria struck the US territory on September 20, leaving most of the island without basic services such as power and running water, according to residents, relief workers and local elected officials. Hospitals throughout the cash-strapped island of 3.4 million people have been running low on medicine and fuel, and residents and local elected officials have said they expect the death toll to rise.

The water situation is so dire, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a news release Wednesday, that residents on the island have reportedly been trying to obtain water from Superfund sites -- which are bodies of water contaminated by hazardous waste. The EPA advised against "tampering with sealed and locked wells or drinking from these wells, as it may be dangerous to people's health."

Administration officials sought to downplay Trump's comments Thursday morning.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, testifying before the House financial services committee, said that he has "no intention" of abandoning recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

"They're a very important part of who we are," he said, later adding: "(Puerto Rico) should not be abandoned."

And White House press secretary Sarah Sanders reaffirmed federal support to the island.

"Our job in any disaster affected location is to help the community respond and recover from that disaster. We continue to do so with the full force of the US government and its resources in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and other affected areas," she said. "Successful recoveries do not last forever; they should be as swift as possible to help people resume their normal lives."

Democrats, however, pounced on Trump's tweets.

"Puerto Ricans are Americans, and we don't abandon each other. The federal government should stay in Puerto Rico as long as necessary," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, tweeted.

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, "Puerto Rico is still facing a humanitarian crisis. @realDonaldTrump seems more worried about blaming hurricane victims than helping them."

And San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has feuded publicly with the President over the federal response, said on Twitter that Trump was incapable of fulfilling the moral imperative to help the people of PR. Shame on you.!"

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossell said in a news conference Thursday that he called the White House looking for clarification on Trump's tweets.

"The law establishes that the aid we are getting from FEMA has to be established for the duration of emergency efforts," he said. 'It's not a decision as is, it's a law that all the resources must be available for Puerto Rico."

However Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, who is a member of the House foreign affairs committee, told CNN's Chris Cuomo Thursday there's only "so much" the US can do to help Puerto Rico.

"I would then again say, 'What is enough?' What is the right amount to satisfy whoever says we're not doing enough," he said on "New Day." "It's regrettable and it's sad for those people but there only is physically, humanly possible so much that any nation could do in the wake of devastation."

He continued: "I lived through it myself, a victim of floods on numerous occasions, had to clean it up, and I will tell you, nobody came to help us, we handled it ourselves."

House to vote on disaster relief

Acting Department of Homeland Security Elaine Duke will make her second trip to the island on Thursday.

House Speaker Paul Ryan will lead a bipartisan delegation visiting Puerto Rico on Friday, according to the speaker's office.

Ryan will travel to the island with House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the panel. Puerto Rico's sole representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, and House GOP Conference Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers also will be part of the congressional delegation.

The House of Representatives approved a $36.5 billion disaster aid package Thursday to help victims struggling to recover from a string of devastating hurricanes and wildfires. The measure now heads to the Senate, which returns from a weeklong recess next week.

(The-CNN-Wire & 2017 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company contributed to this report. All rights reserved.)