SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – San Juan’s mayor urged the United States on Tuesday to prioritize “people above debt” as it helps rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, after President Donald Trump said that the island’s crippling debt “must be dealt with.”
Maria slammed into the U.S. territory of 3.4 million people last week as the most powerful hurricane to Puerto Rico in almost 90 years, destroying homes and infrastructure, including knocking out power across the island. Puerto Rico, which has struggled for years economically, filed the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history earlier this year.
“You don’t put debt above people, you put people above debt,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told CNN in an interview. “There is a moral imperative … When someone is in need, when someone is in dire need, when someone is in a life or death situation, there is a human, moral imperative to deal with that situation before dealing with anything else.”
She spoke a day after Trump said the island’s $72 billion in debt needs to be addressed.
“Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” Trump said in a series of Twitter posts on Monday. “It’s (sic) old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
Puerto Rico’s government asked a judge on Monday for up to four extra weeks to meet key deadlines in its bankruptcy case.
Many structures on the island, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded, with clean drinking water hard to find in some areas. Few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has called for federal aid to flow quickly to the island.
“Given Puerto Rico’s fragile economic recovery prior to the storms, we ask the Trump Administration and U.S. Congress to take swift action to help Puerto Rico rebuild,” Rossello said in a statement on Monday.
Critics have said the Trump administration is not acting fast enough, with some saying that although Puerto Rico is not a state, its people are U.S. citizens and should be treated fairly. The island is a U.S. commonwealth and its inhabitants do not have a vote in presidential elections or full representation in Congress.
Among those critics is singer Marc Anthony, whose family is from Puerto Rico. In a strongly-worded Twitter post on Monday, Anthony said Trump should stop dwelling on a controversy involving National Football League players and the national anthem and, “Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico. We are American citizens too.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders denied the administration had been slow to respond, telling reporters on Monday the administration was engaged in fact-finding to assess how much help was needed.
“The federal response has been anything but slow,” she said at a daily briefing. “In fact, there’s been an unprecedented push through of billions of dollars in federal assistance that the administration has fought for.”
The storm has posed a major challenge for the island’s electricity utility, PREPA, which declared bankruptcy in July after accumulating a $9 billion debt and years of underinvestment.
Six days after the storm hit, officials were still taking stock of what was expected to be a months-long effort to rebuild the power system, meaning many people will be without electricity for an extended period.
Rossello has imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew following the storm.
Maria was located about 190 miles (305 km) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at 8 a.m. ET (1200 GMT) Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (120 kph), the National Hurricane Center said. It was expected to lose force and become a tropical storm over the next day as it headed north in the Atlantic Ocean.
Forecast tracks showed it headed away from the U.S. mainland over the next few days.
Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry