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Trump races to catch up as Puerto Rico crisis escalates

Franco Ordonez and Alex Daugherty, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Weather News

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is scrambling to get its arms around a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico after Republicans and Democrats charged the White House with moving too slowly and paying too little attention to the island and its 3 million American citizens.

Eight days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, Trump's team suspended for 10 days a U.S. shipping law to allow foreign vessels to assist in Puerto Rico's relief effort. And the administration announced a three-star general overseeing the U.S. military's efforts to move supplies into and throughout the island would go to Puerto Rico.

These efforts came only after significant pressure from local and federal officials of both parties, who spent the last three days warning the president that Washington's response was not sufficient for the scale of the crisis.

"This is Katrina 2017, make no mistake about it," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois and one of five Puerto Ricans in Congress.

Even Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has emerged as a key adviser to Donald Trump on Latin America issues, publicly urged the president to move faster and put the U.S. military in charge of recovery and logistics efforts on the island.

"Nothing good happens in the tropics with eight days of no power," Rubio told reporters on Thursday. "We have to respond to an unusual event with unusual measures."

According to an administration official, Puerto Rico's governor is in charge of the overall response, that involves a complex web of civilian and military operations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency leads the federal support effort, and the Defense Department is supporting civilian authorities.

Rubio, who clearly has the ear of the president, argued that the government in Puerto Rico does not have the capacity -- in money, staff or even communications resources -- to lead such a massive effort. He pressed Trump to put the Defense Department in charge of recovery efforts on the island.

"This is what they do," Rubio said Thursday. "They're the best responders to natural disasters on the planet. And we need to employ them."

The Trump administration spent much of the day defending itself from accusations that it has dragged its feet as officials on the island fight to restore electricity and mobile-phone service, and get families food and clean water. The White House sent multiple aides to the mics on Thursday who characterized the response as robust and adequate.

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