White House: ‘Significant Progress’ on Puerto Rico Year After Hurricane

The White House said Thursday it has made “significant progress” in restoring normal life on the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico, exactly a year after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria.

It said the Federal Emergency Management Agency faced “unprecedented challenges” when the Category  4 hurricane swept over the Caribbean island with 250 kilometer-per-hour winds, knocking out its electrical grid, sending cascading landslides and fallen trees over thousands of kilometers of roads, and shutting down water systems.

Now, the White House said, power and water systems have been restored for nearly all of the island’s 3.3 million residents, and all but 640 of Puerto Rico’s 27,000 kilometers of roadways have been repaired.  Nearly all of the island’s cellular towers have also been restored.

The White House dispatched administration officials, including Housing Secretary Ben Carson, to the island to meet with Puerto Rico officials to discuss the ongoing recovery efforts.

Blue tarps still serve as roofs for some housing on the island, while many residents have run out of emergency funds needed to make more repairs to their homes. Other residents, especially poorer people, say their lives remain in turmoil as a result of the storm, with relief agencies reporting that more people are requesting food and other staples than before Maria hit.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said this week that the government is suing insurance companies that it says have not responded quickly enough to damage claims from the storm. The suit claimed that Puerto Ricans are owed $2.6 billion in unpaid damages.

The White House quoted President Donald Trump as saying earlier this week, “We stand with Puerto Rico, and we are helping them to rebuild stronger and better than ever before. To every family who has lost a loved one in these really devastating hurricanes and storms: All of America grieves with you.  Our hands are folded in prayer and outstretched with love.”

The White House made no mention of the controversy over the death toll from the storm. The initial toll was listed as 64 deaths, but several studies since then have pegged the number as much higher, partly because in the storm’s aftermath, ailing island residents were unable to get the medical treatment they needed because of blocked roads or lack of electrical power they needed for surgeries and medical care.

WATCH: Year After Hurricane, Puerto Ricans Working to Move On

Researchers at George Washington University concluded last month that nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans were killed by the storm, comparing normal mortality on the island with the number who died in the months after the hurricane. The Puerto Rican government accepted the figure as the correct death toll.

But Trump rejected the figure, saying on Twitter a week ago, “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” also referencing Hurricane Irma that delivered a glancing blow to the island a year ago.

“When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000. This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”

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