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San Juan Mayor: This Is A 'People Are Dying' Story

The Navy's hospital ship Comfort departs from Norfolk, Va., to support hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

Tensions over the Trump administration's handling of the recovery effort on hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico boiled over Friday as San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said, "People are dying here," and called on President Trump to put someone in charge of the relief effort who "is up to the task of saving lives."

Cruz' comments came after Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke told reporters at the White House Thursday that the administration's response so far "is a good-news story in terms of our ability to reach people." She also said the death toll had been low for a storm the size of Hurricane Maria.

"She said that?" asked an incredulous Cruz during an interview with CNN.

"Maybe from where she's standing it's a good news story. When you're drinking from a creek, it's not a good news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good news story. ... I'm sorry but that really upsets me and frustrates me," said Cruz.

"Dammit, this is not a good-news story. This is a 'people are dying' story. This is a life or death story," she added.

At a news conference on Friday, Cruz said, "I am done being polite. I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell."

"If we don't get the food and the water into people's hands what we are going to see is something close to a genocide," she said.

Puerto Rico, home to more than 3 million U.S. citizens, has had limited food, bottled water and medical supplies since Hurricane Maria struck nine days ago. Few buildings have generator-supplied electricity, which is dependent on scarce fuel.

As NPR's Greg Allen and Marisa Penaloza have reported, many hospitals are still shut down. Those that are open are operating on just emergency generator power and can offer very limited services. Some communities are still flooded in parts. The distribution of much needed diesel fuel is hampered by a lack of truck drivers.

So far at least 16 have died, according to The Associated Press.

Perhaps in response to Cruz' impatient retort, Secretary Duke followed a tour of the island with a news conference Friday and said, "Despite working together, I know that the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are suffering."

"The President and I will not be fully satisfied, however, until every Puerto Rican is back home, the power is back on, clean water is fully available, schools and hospitals are fully open, and the Puerto Rican economy is working," said Duke.

In remarks to the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, Trump also defended his administration's response to the crisis in Puerto Rico.

"Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort — it will end up being one of the biggest ever — will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island," said Trump.

"We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe," he added.

Trump, in a tweet earlier this week, first linked the expense of the recovery effort with Puerto Rico's inability to repay more than $70 billion in debt owed to Wall Street.

Still, Cruz, in her CNN appearance, left little doubt that she is looking to the White House for help.

"Mr. Trump, I beg you to take charge and save lives," she said.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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