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How Puerto Rico Heard Trump's Rating Of Hurricane Maria Response


For more on how Puerto Rico heard the president's comments about the response to Hurricane Maria, we're joined by the minority leader of the Puerto Rican Senate, Eduardo Bhatia. Welcome to the program.

EDUARDO BHATIA: Thank you so much. Happy to be with you.

CORNISH: So what do you make of the U.S. president calling the federal response to Hurricane Maria a success?

BHATIA: It's outrageous. It's really outrageous based not only on the local facts but the fact that so many people are still suffering a year after the hurricane. So many - even federal agencies, local agencies have admitted that they were wrong, that the response was far from what it should have been.

And, you know, it seems to me that the president is - you know, it's a self-serving comment. It's part of his ego I guess. But it's outrageous that he still believes that it was a good response by the federal government.

CORNISH: In the meantime, there have been reports of emergency supplies that weren't distributed discovered in pockets around the island. The latest I think was millions of bottled water bottles - right? - that had come from FEMA. They were on a runway for the last year and didn't get to people.

BHATIA: Right.

CORNISH: What do you make when you are hearing of this?

BHATIA: Well, there are many stories. And I think the fact that 3,000 people - unlike what the president has stated, 3,000 people that did not have to die died as a result of the hurricane, all of that just brings a lot of pain locally. And the fact that you know now that there had - were a million bottles of water just lying there for a year, it goes to show what a chaotic mismanagement scenario we had in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. I know. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the local leadership. I'm sorry for the federal government. This was a disaster when it comes to defining disasters after Hurricane Maria.

CORNISH: As we mentioned, you're minority leader of the Puerto Rican Senate. How would you describe Puerto Rico's response to the disaster? I mean, truly, was it any more effective - right? - than what FEMA did or the federal government did?

BHATIA: No, it wasn't. I think there was a total lack of coordination. I think that, you know, unfortunately the governor of Puerto Rico and his team kind of replayed President Trump's playbook saying - you know, they were boasting about how good they were. And, you know, the truth of the matter is that they were not, that the local government made a lot of mistakes, that our secretary of health did not provide the leadership that we needed, that our first responders were not doing what they were supposed to do. And unfortunately the communication with the federal government was null. It didn't exist.

CORNISH: Before the storm, Puerto Rico was struggling financially. You're under control of a federal oversight board when it comes to your budget. How is that affecting the - how's that affecting the recovery plans to your mind, having to also be under the budget restrictions?

BHATIA: Well, it's a lot of stress. It's a lot of stress because we were undergoing a very difficult austerity period, and therefore the government didn't have the money to face a situation like the one we have right now. Now, the federal funds are helping. And of course I'm not going to deny that Puerto Rico needs more federal help. But at the same time, there is an ongoing fiscal crisis that still exists regardless of the federal funds that are coming in for specific projects. So it will alleviate distress for a couple of years, but the financial crisis of Puerto Rico is still there.

CORNISH: September 20 is the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. Hurricane season obviously has begun. What are your biggest concerns right now?

BHATIA: Well, my biggest concern is the number of families who still have a blue tarp on their rooftops. Unlike previous hurricanes where FEMA was a lot more agile, this time around, FEMA did a very poor job, and they have admitted it themselves. So there are thousands of people who still have no roofs on their homes. They have those blue tarps, and that's - you know, it's really scary. Any small storm - it could just blow them away.

The second thing is the electric grid is still not resilient. It's still a very old and very obsolete electric system that we have in Puerto Rico. And I wish we would move faster to try to rebuild the electric grid as soon as possible.

CORNISH: Eduardo Bhatia is minority leader of the Puerto Rican Senate. Thank you for speaking with us.

BHATIA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.