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Islanders, lawmakers decry Trump's threatened pullback of aid for Puerto Rico

Laura King and Noah Bierman, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump drew a sharp and dismayed backlash Thursday from Democratic lawmakers, activists and many Puerto Ricans with his threat to limit federal and military help in the hurricane-battered U.S. territory, where aid workers are warning of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria raked the island, some 85 percent of residents remain without power, with nearly half of its 3.4 million population lacking running water.

Food and basic supplies remain scarce in the mountainous interior, waterborne diseases pose a growing threat and many hospitals are in dire circumstances. Deaths attributed to the storm stand at 45, but the number is expected to rise.

In a series of tweets early Thursday, Trump implied that Puerto Rico was to blame for its problems, and suggested he would not endorse the type of yearslong, multibillion-dollar federal recovery effort that typically follows a storm of such magnitude, or another large-scale disaster, striking a U.S. locale.

"We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!" Trump said in one tweet.

He also cited what he called a "total lack of accountability" on Puerto Rico's part, and quoted a conservative journalist who characterized the island's financial crisis as a problem "of their own making."

Despite a triumphal tone during a presidential visit to the island last week, during which he praised the recovery effort to date as "amazing," Trump has appeared to grow more and more frustrated with criticism of the scope and timing of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico.

He and aides have painted a picture of robust progress, spoken at length of logistical challenges being overcome and leveled sharp criticism at some local officials.

The verbal dust-up over Puerto Rico, whose residents are U.S. citizens at birth, coincides with a post-storm cash crunch for the island. On Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a $36.5 billion measure that would replenish government disaster aid funds and help Puerto Rico's government keep working. The Senate is to take up the bill next week.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello told lawmakers over the weekend that without congressional action, the territory's government would be unable to pay workers or vendors at the end of October.

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