Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., one of four members of Congress born in Puerto Rico, said the Trump administration has done a "disgraceful job" of helping the 3.4 million Americans on the island devastated by Hurricane Maria.
"I think it isn't a good job; it's a disgraceful job. The United States of America is the most powerful, wealthiest country in the world, and this is not a response that's demonstrative of our power and our wealth," Gutiérrez said, his voice breaking during an emotional interview Friday night with CNN's Jim Scuitto.
President Donald Trump has been facing mounting criticism over what some say is his administration's slow response to Hurricane Maria. For four days after the massive storm made landfall, Trump and his aides remained largely silent as the storm-ravaged island struggled with lack of food, water and electricity, The Washington Post reported Friday. Earlier, the president had issued an emergency declaration and promised all federal resources would be directed to help.
Local officials on the island, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, decried logistical failures to deliver basic necessities to communities across Puerto Rico and said that the federal response had "collapsed."
In response, Trump faulted the island's "broken infrastructure & massive debt," blamed the media, and personally attacked Cruz. The president also praised his administration's relief efforts, saying in a tweet Saturday that the thousands of federal workers on the island are doing a "fantastic job."
More than 11,800 federal staff from three dozen departments and agencies are in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, according to FEMA. The agency also said that millions of meals and liters of water have been provided, and more are en route via air and sea.
Before Hurricane Maria made landfall, more than 4,500 members of the National Guard were in Puerto Rico, administration officials said.
Gutiérrez, who owns a vacation property a few miles from the capital city of San Juan, said the response was not enough.
"It's costing lives, Mr. President, of children, and the elderly and the infirm," Gutiérrez, a Democrat, said of the administration's response. "And we should begin an operation to also evacuate people from this island, especially the elderly, especially those that have sicknesses until they can return to [the] island to rebuild it."
He also said of Trump: "I would hope that as he likes to talk about fire and the fury of the Armed Forces of the United States, that he bring them to Puerto Rico. Put that same fire and fury to save the people of Puerto Rico from what is going to be a disaster here on this island."
Gutiérrez added, though, that there is some good news. FEMA had promised to deliver 1.7 million meals and 2 1/2 million liters of water to the island, he said.
Bringing food, water and other basic necessities to Puerto Rico's port and terminals is only half of the logistical challenge, as The Post reported last week. Distributing those goods to the people who need them is the other part of the problem, as damage to the trucking infrastructure, roads and others have also hampered relief efforts.
Gutiérrez, who represents many Puerto Rican constituents in Chicago, arrived on the island Friday. The Democrat from Illinois is known for fiery speeches on the House floor and for regularly delivering passionate criticisms of Trump and former president Barack Obama over issues like immigration.
He is one of three Democratic lawmakers who were arrested outside Trump Tower last week. Gutiérrez and Reps. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., and Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., were protesting Trump's decision to end an Obama-era program that provided legal protections to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as minors.
Before he flew to Puerto Rico, Gutiérrez called for the federal government to not only meet immediate needs for food, water, medicine and shelter, but to also promise long-term investment and cooperation with the island's government. He vowed to push Congress to appropriate funding to rebuild Puerto Rico.
"The work of first responders and our military has been heroic, but the island needs more . . . This is a public health crisis and should be declared a health emergency by the federal government," Gutiérrez said during a speech on the House floor.