US President Donald Trump has told struggling Puerto Ricans to be “very proud” of the relatively low death toll, while suggesting its recovery after devastating Hurricane Maria has put his “budget a little out of whack”.
One of the first people Mr Trump met when he and his wife, Melania, touched down in San Juan on Tuesday was the city’s mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has repeatedly blasted the president as showing insufficient concern about Puerto Rico’s plight.
Mr Trump, who has grappled with hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the past six weeks, praised the federal assistance so far in the US territory but not without a remark about its financial cost.
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico,” he said.
“And that’s fine, we’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Mr Trump compared the death roll from Hurricane Maria to that of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the US, which he deemed “a real catastrophe”.
Trump in #PuertoRico: "What is your death count as of this point? 16?…You can be very proud."
I am speechless. This is beyond vile pic.twitter.com/J5Uiivl9Uo
— MJ Okma (@OkmaMJ) October 3, 2017
“Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this,” Mr Trump said.
“What is your death count as of this moment? 17?” he asked Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló.
“Sixteen people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.”
Shortly after Mr Trump made the controversial comments, authorities increased the death toll to 34.
But Governor Rosselló said later at a press conference he believed Mr Trump had seen the “level of devastation” and “understands the gravity of this situation”.
Mr Trump was also criticised for playfully lobbing paper towels into a crowd of people at a relief event later that day.
President Trump throws paper towels into the crowd at a Hurricane Maria relief event in Puerto Rico https://t.co/FLHYyPsaLD
— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 3, 2017
Almost half of Puerto Rico remains without power and many have limited access to food and fresh water.
A few days earlier Trump had lashed out at Ms Cruz on Twitter for “poor leadership”.
He cited “politically motivated ingrates” and said some people on the island “want everything to be done for them”.
He shook hands with Ms Cruz after his arrival but he saved his warm words of praise for other local and federal authorities.
Mr and Mrs Trump met survivors of the disaster in the nearby town Guaynabo, walking down a street and talking to several families whose homes were damaged.
Mr Trump had criticism of his own about the local response.
“Their drivers have to start driving trucks,” he said at the White House.
“So on a local level, they have to give us more help. But I will tell you, the first responders, the military, FEMA, they have done an incredible job in Puerto Rico.”
The economy of the US territory, home to 3.4 million people, was already in recession and its government filed for bankruptcy in May. The storm wiped out the island’s power grid, and less than half of residents have running water.
Mr Trump got high marks for his handling of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Caribbean.
Caught off guard by the severity of Hurricane Maria’s damage to Puerto Rico, Mr Trump did not focus on the storm for days.
His administration has transferred more than $US20.5 million ($A26.2 million) in federal funds to Puerto Rico to defray disaster expenses, FEMA said on its website.
The island’s recovery will likely cost more than $US30 billion.
Oxfam International has stepped in to assist in the relief effort, citing the US government’s “slow and inadequate” response.