WASHINGTON — Denied her chance to testify before Congress Wednesday, the mayor of Puerto Rico’s largest city used a Capitol hallway to heap criticism on President Donald Trump, saying he "can't handle the truth."
Six weeks since the monstrous hurricane hit the island, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said the island remains in a “life or death” situation.
“The Trump administration can’t handle the truth,” she said, adding that “survival cannot be our new way of life.”
Cruz was supposed to testify Wednesday before the House Committee on Homeland Security, but the hearing was abruptly canceled. Cruz got news of the cancellation after she had already headed to Washington. Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency testified on Tuesday.
“I am here to say what I was going to say at that hearing, that they seemed not to want to hear,” she said. “Mr. Trump, do your job. Lives are at stake. This is not about politics. This is not about your ego. This is about the people of Puerto Rico and the people of the U.S. VI (Virgin Islands).”
In a response, White House spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré defended the administration's work since the aftermath.
“The Trump administration continues to work earnestly with government officials of Puerto Rico ... FEMA was on the island prior to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, during the storms and remains still with 16,500 men and women providing critical humanitarian supplies and support not only to the governor and mayors, but most importantly, to the people of Puerto Rico who are our main concern," Ferré said.
In a copy of Cruz's written testimony distributed at the news conference, Cruz described the harrowing days after the hurricane and the slow trickle of help. On Sept. 28, the city received 12 pallets of food, water and baby products from FEMA for the 350,000 people of San Juan, she stated. She praised help that has come from cities and private groups.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, D-New York, organized the news conference, which was held after the caucus met. He was joined by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who is the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee and other Democrats.
Thompson said the committee was supposed to look at what is going on in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
"While the FEMA administrator is testifying on the Hill yesterday, today, tomorrow, for whatever reason (Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael) McCaul canceled the hearing," Thompson said, "and so the people of this country, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands really are still left in a lurch as to why things are not working like they should," he said.
Ticking off a list of demands, Cruz said the administration needs to treat Puerto Rico with dignity and suspend the Jones Act for four years. The law restricts shipping to the island to U.S. ships with U.S. crews.
Puerto Rico needs a comprehensive “reform” and “restoration” plan that “touches on energy and education and health care, but it can’t be a plan that takes us back to the 1950s,” she said.
“No longer will we be able to hide inequality and poverty behind palm trees and piña coladas,” she said.
Cruz complained that the congressionally ordered financial restructuring plan created before the hurricane to pull Puerto Rico out of debt has forced municipalities to give up $350 million to pay creditors.
San Juan’s contribution was $21 million this year, money that could be used for hurricane assistance, Cruz said.
Cruz said since DHS has been "running interference" with FEMA, there has been improvement for the city. She said she has spoken a couple of times with DHS Secretary Elaine Duke. But the need is high, she said.
With about 60 percent of donations from private groups and 40 percent from FEMA, about one in three people in San Juan "have gone into our robust supply chain of help," she said in her prepared testimony.
Lawmakers plan to hold a "solidarity" rally for the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on the Capitol steps on Thursday.