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Visiting Puerto Rico, Cuomo Attacks Trump’s Response to Earthquakes

GUÁNICA, P.R. — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York criticized the Trump administration’s response to a series of powerful earthquakes that has shaken Puerto Rico for weeks, toppling homes and knocking out power to parts of the island, which has still not fully recovered from Hurricane Maria.

If the effects of the tremors have reminded residents of Hurricane Maria’s devastation two years ago, so have the politics surrounding the recovery of the island, which experienced a magnitude-4.6 temblor on Tuesday morning.

“They didn’t respond appropriately at Hurricane Maria,” Mr. Cuomo said in New York City before boarding a plane to the island on Tuesday. “The president showed up and threw paper towels into the crowd, and now we have an earthquake and continuing tremors, and once again the federal government hasn’t showed up the way they should.”

Puerto Rico has become a recurring cudgel for Mr. Cuomo in his attacks on President Trump, which have included criticism over federal immigration policy and the president’s failure to disclose his tax returns. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has called Mr. Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria an “embarrassment” and “appalling.”

Mr. Cuomo’s criticism of the federal government’s response to the earthquakes focused on the fact that Mr. Trump still has not released hurricane-related federal funds that he said could be used to address damage from the earthquakes. The seismic activity began in late December and have forced thousands of fearful residents from their homes: More than 8,000 residents are scattered in more than 40 shelters, and thousands more are sleeping in makeshift tents and inside parked cars near highways.

But the island is clearly showing signs of recovery: Electricity has been restored to 99 percent of customers, and the Army Corps of Engineers has mobilized personnel to help install generators.

Mr. Cuomo, along with a delegation of elected officials from New York, toured a major natural gas power plant that was damaged in the southern part of the island. It used to produce about a quarter of the island’s electricity, but officials expect it will now be shut down for several months.

Mr. Cuomo also visited Guánica, a coastal town that received the brunt of the damage from the earthquakes. He walked its narrow streets with the town’s mayor, observing homes — most of them built on stilts — that had collapsed.

Santos Seda, the mayor, said that 700 of the town’s 8,000 homes sustained damage and that there was a lack of engineers to inspect the structures.

“This we can fix,” Mr. Cuomo told the mayor. “We have been through worse.”

It is Mr. Cuomo’s seventh trip to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the United States territory in September 2017, knocking out power, water and telecommunications across the island and resulting in more than 3,000 fatalities.

At the time, Mr. Cuomo deployed state resources to the island almost immediately. He has sought to frame New York’s response as more effective, albeit more modest, than that of the federal government. He used his visit on Tuesday to announce the deployment of 115 members of the National Guard, adding to the New York Power Authority personnel already helping the island’s government in repairing its power grid.

The Trump administration’s Hurricane Maria response has resurfaced in light of the recent temblors.

Chase Jennings, the press secretary for the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, said more than $90 billion had been forecast to be spent on Puerto Rico’s recovery.

“While we continue to ensure Puerto Rico has what they need, we must also make sure the proper guidelines are in place to make certain the people of Puerto Rico directly benefit, not politicians with their history of corruption,” he said in a statement.

Last week, Mr. Trump approved Puerto Rico’s request for an emergency declaration, but still has not approved a major disaster declaration, which local officials hope will give them more access to federal funds.

On Monday, some Democratic members of Congress wrote to Mr. Trump, urging him to release more than $18 billion that was allocated to the island after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, both two years ago.

“Let us be clear,” the letter said. “Postponing the disbursement of this vital assistance any longer — in the face of the humanitarian needs of Puerto Rico — is simply shameful.”

Thousands of reconstruction projects in Puerto Rico remain in limbo because of stalled federal funding, compared with speedier and more generous aid sent to hurricane-ravaged states like Florida and Texas.

Aside from damage to physical structures, local officials are increasingly worried about Puerto Ricans’ mental health. The barrage of tremors — more than 1,000 have rocked the 100-mile-long island in a span of a few weeks — has made many residents nervous and afraid to stay in their own homes.

“The anxiety has been the worst part,” said Juan Galarza, 74, a retired carpenter who lives in the Esperanza neighborhood of Guánica. “Even when a truck passes I get nervous.”

His son’s house was left dangerously tilted from the worst of the tremors. Mr. Galarza and his wife’s home was spared, but for the past eight nights they have driven inland to sleep inside their modest Suzuki S.U.V., which they cover with an old street banner to block the sunlight.

For Mr. Cuomo, assisting Puerto Rico has become a familiar ritual.

In 1998, when Mr. Cuomo was the secretary of housing and urban development, President Clinton sent him to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Georges, which left the island without power and destroyed thousands of homes, causing more than $2 billion in damage.

Mr. Cuomo oversaw part of the federal government’s response and worked closely with the island’s governor at the time, Pedro Rosselló, the father of the recently ousted governor Ricardo Rosselló.

“I know how impactful the federal government can be when they want to be,” Mr. Cuomo said. “I don’t see that on that part of this federal government. That’s why New York is so engaged.”

The visits are also a savvy political move: More than one million Puerto Ricans live in New York, making it a tradition for candidates and elected officials to travel to the island and capitalize on its most pressing issues.

In 2001, for example, Gov. George E. Pataki flew to the territory to speak out against the Navy’s bombings in Vieques, a small island-town off the coast of Puerto Rico. Mr. Cuomo, who at the time was vying for the Democratic nomination to unseat Mr. Pataki, accused the former governor of pandering, saying: “He has paid no attention to Puerto Ricans.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday also sought to honor that tradition: Although he did not go to Puerto Rico, he appeared in Brooklyn to announce that New York City will send another team of city personnel to the island. The contingent of 24 workers, which includes 15 building inspectors and engineers, brings the total number of the city’s recovery team to 28.

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