Pence in Puerto Rico: ‘We have a long way to go’

Vice President Mike Pence tours a neighborhood damaged by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017.
Vice President Mike Pence tours a neighborhood damaged by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017. AP

Like President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence did not venture far from Puerto Rico’s capital Friday when he got a firsthand look at how badly Hurricane Maria hurt the island.

But he continued to pledge Washington would not forget about its fellow Americans in the Caribbean, many of whom continue to be without running water, power or communications 16 days after Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.

“We have a long way to go,” Pence acknowledged at Iglesia Santa Bernardita, a church in an eastern San Juan suburb. “President Trump and I know this.”

Puerto Rico is still in emergency-response mode, still working to provide adequate food and water to communities cut off by blocked or destroyed roads and bridges and unable to reach regional supply centers set up in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Only 10 percent of Puerto Ricans have power, and about 55 percent have running water, according to the territory’s government

What Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he wanted from Pence was a commitment to be Puerto Rico’s friend in the U.S. Senate, once lawmakers take up an aid package for the bankrupt island, Rosselló told reporters before Pence’s arrival. Pence is known to have the ear of Republican lawmakers — and, as vice president, he breaks any tied Senate votes.

“It is important that he knows the magnitude of the damage,” Rosselló said. “I believe that we will have a great spokesperson and a great supporter with his leadership in the Senate.”

Benny Marín, a college student who went to Santa Bernardita to see Pence, praised the federal government’s assistance, despite vocal criticism last week from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

“It’s not to the degree she is saying,” Marín, whose house only took on minor flooding, said of the damage. “The mayor is using it for political advantage.”

At one point, a young man with a beard told Pence he was angry.

“This is just a little bit of what you’re going to see,” he said. “If you’re going to help us, it’s gotta be now. We need more people. We need more communications. I’m a little bit angry, Mr. Vice President.”

Afterward, the vice president said he understood the frustration.

“The devastation here in Puerto Rico has been historic.... We understand the frustration when you think of the magnitude of the loss, the impact on the families, the loss of life.”

“Our message here today is the same as President Trump’s message earlier this week. We’re here for the long haul. We’ll continue to provide support. We will continue to move resources in this community.”

In Orlando on Thursday, a Puerto Rican woman newly arrived in Florida had urged Pence to leave San Juan and go to places left far more undone by Maria — the same criticism some Puerto Ricans leveled against Trump when he dropped by the capital earlier this week.

Apparently aware of the dig, Pence specifically mentioned Friday a number of struggling towns outside San Juan while listing signs of progress, such as the fact that 7 million meals and 6 million liters of water have been distributed, and 14 Navy and Coast Guard ships have set up around the island to help.

“Puerto Rico se levanta!” he said in Spanish at the church, using Rosselló’s post-storm slogan, Puerto Rico rises.

Pence flew into San Juan from the U.S. Virgin Islands. From a military Blackhawk helicopter, he saw the devastation inflicted by Maria and her predecessor, Hurricane Irma. Roofs were blown off. Cars were piled up. Some boats looked sunk. Trees were flattened.

“The devastation here is overwhelming, but the resilience of the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Pence declared at the St. Croix Education Center, which is serving as an emergency shelter for 289 people.

At Holy Cross Episcopal Church, which is missing part of its roof, John Farnsworth expressed mild displeasure with the government’s response to Maria, saying roads didn’t start to get cleared until Monday — nearly two weeks after the storm hit.

“They have been a little bit slow in doing things,” said Farnsworth, who works in construction and has no power at home.

Still, Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp, who briefed Pence at an airport hangar amid stifling heat, said his government had received everything it had requested from the feds.

“For me, it’s significant progress,” Mapp said, noting public schools will reopen Tuesday and some 2,500 federal workers are on the ground.

“We are here for the long haul,” Pence said. “It is the Virgin Islands but it is the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

Mazzei reported from Miami.