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Trump hints at ending aid as Puerto Ricans forced to drink polluted water

People affected by Hurricane Maria bathe in water piped in from a mountain creek, in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, amid concerns about islanders’ exposure to contaminated water.
People affected by Hurricane Maria bathe in water piped in from a mountain creek, in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, amid concerns about islanders’ exposure to contaminated water. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

Donald Trump has seemingly threatened to pull federal emergency support from Puerto Rico a day after his administration reported that desperate people in the US territory have been drinking from contaminated wells due to a lack of water.

In a series of tweets sent on Thursday morning, Trump said: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. Forever!”

The president preceded this with tweets that stated “Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes” in Puerto Rico and quoted a TV host who said of the territory that “a financial crisis looms largely of their own making”.

There are currently more than 1,400 Fema personnel in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands responding to the humanitarian crisis that has erupted following hurricanes Maria and Irma.

On Thursday, Fema said it had expanded its leadership team in Puerto Rico following the “unprecedented destruction” from the hurricanes.

Sufficient aid has yet to reach many people in Puerto Rico, three weeks after much of the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria. More than 80% of the island is without electricity and nearly half of all people are still cut off from communication.

The water situation has become particularly dire, with the state department estimating that about a third of Puerto Ricans are without potable water. This has led to some people attempting to access wells that have been sealed due to toxic pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

On Wednesday, the EPA said it has “reports of residents obtaining, or trying to obtain, drinking water from wells at hazardous waste superfund sites in Puerto Rico”. Superfund sites are heavily polluted areas that have been designated for federal cleanup.

The environmental regulator said it was working with Fema to get drinking wells functioning and urged people to not tamper with locked wells or drink their contents. The EPA added that Puerto Ricans should not use water from rivers or streams for drinking or bathing without boiling it first because “raw sewage continues to be released into waterways and is expected to continue until repairs can be made and power is restored.”

The death toll from Hurricane Maria jumped to 45 people this week, and 113 people remain unaccounted for. The Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, a local investigative journalism project has estimated that the real total is likely to be much higher.

Trump’s comments prompted a furious reaction from Puerto Rican leaders.

New York congresswoman Nydia Velásquez said on Twitter that the president’s comments were “outrageous, indefensible and irresponsible. We will not allow our gov’t to abandon our fellow citizens.”

“America does not abandon fellow citizens during crises!!” she wrote.

Governor Ricardo Rossello followed suit, saying that the US territory, home to 3.4 million US citizens, was “requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation”.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan – an outspoken critic of Trump’s response to the disaster – said in a statement addressed to the president that Trump’s tweets and comments about Puerto Rico “underscore the inadequacy of your government’s response to this humanitarian crisis.”

“It is not that you do not get it, it is that you are incapable of empathy and frankly simply cannot get the job done,” she wrote.

“Puerto Ricans have suffered greatly in the past month. Two hurricanes devastated our homes and our electrical infrastructure leaving us without the essentials to survive: drinkable water, food and medicine.

“But perhaps more frustrating has been the devastating actions, time after time, by a president whose tweets, comments and actions seem to be taken out of a book on ‘how to add insult to injury’ rather than a book on ‘how to help during a humanitarian crisis’.”

Amid the furore, Trump had an ally in the House speaker, Paul Ryan, who acknowledged that Puerto Rico was facing a “humanitarian crisis”, but went on to echo Trump’s emphatic declaration that the island would not always have access to federal resources.

“Yes, we need to make sure that Puerto Rico can begin to stand on its own two feet,” Ryan told reporters Thursday. “They’ve already had tough fiscal problems to begin with ... We’ve got to do more to help Puerto Rico rebuild its own economy so that it can be self-sufficient.”

• This article was amended on 13 October 2017 because Puerto Rico is a US territory, not a state as an earlier version said.

This article titled "Trump hints at ending aid as Puerto Ricans forced to drink polluted water" was written by Oliver Milman and Amanda Holpuch, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12 October 2017 03.02pm

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