President Donald Trump gave himself a "10" on Thursday for his response to the widespread devastation Puerto Rico suffered after back-to-back hurricanes created a situation that the island's governor described as "catastrophic" as he met with Trump at the White House.
More than 80 percent of households in Puerto Rico remain without electricity about a month after Hurricane Maria, the second storm, dealt the island a severe blow. Asked when the 3.4 million U.S. citizens living there could expect power to be fully restored, Trump replied: "It's a very, very good question, actually."
Trump said it will take "a while" to build a new power plant or substantially renovate what was damaged by the storms. The president said most of the power that exists is being supplied by the "massive numbers" of generators he sent to the island.
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"There's never been a case where power plants were gone," Trump said, seated alongside Gov. Ricardo Rossello in the Oval Office. "So it's going to be a period of time before the electric is restored."
Trump was also asked by a reporter to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the White House response to Puerto Rico.
"I'd say it was a 10," Trump said. "I'd say it was probably the most difficult -- when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved, you look at the number -- I mean, this was -- I think it was worse than Katrina, it was, in many ways, worse than anything people have ever seen."
Trump said the administration had personnel nearby before the storm hit, ready to go afterward, and that a "fantastic job" was done under the circumstances.
"I would give a 10," he repeated.
During a visit to Puerto Rico earlier this month to survey damage, Trump compared what happened there to a "real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, killing hundreds when levees broke and flooded the city. Trump's comment was interpreted by some as minimizing Puerto Rico's suffering at a time when residents were struggling to get food and clean drinking water, and coping without electricity.
Seated beside Trump, Rossello tried to strike an upbeat note despite saying "it's a catastrophic situation" in Puerto Rico. But he said, "We are going to beat this. We know we're going to build better than before," he said.
Rossello has been supportive of Trump, saying again Thursday that every request he's made of the president has been answered. The governor, who also met with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said Trump "has been clear that no U.S. citizen will be left behind."
Members of Congress from both parties have criticized the response to Puerto Rico as lackluster compared to the administration's reaction after hurricanes in Houston and parts of Louisiana, and later in Florida.
The mayor of San Juan has also been a vocal critic of the response and of some of Trump's comments on Twitter.
Trump said he has given his "blessing" to Congress for a funding plan to help the debt-ridden island pay for the new power station. The electrical grid was in poor shape long before the storm hit.
The president also sought to clarify a tweet from earlier this month that seemed to suggest he was ready to cut off federal assistance to the U.S. territory, saying FEMA, the military and first responders can't stay "in P.R. forever!"
Trump said Thursday that "at a certain point," FEMA and other agencies have to leave the locations where the U.S. goes to help.
"I think the governor understands that FEMA, the military, the first responders cannot be there forever," he said. "And no matter where you go, they cannot be there forever."
In another development Thursday, a handful of Democratic senators called in a letter for acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke to investigate the accuracy of the death toll on the island in the wake of a report it could be off by hundreds.
The official death toll from the storm is 48 people.
“The need for an accurate death toll is especially important because President Trump seems to be using the number of fatalities to determine the quality of the disaster response,” the letter said, citing media reports about hospital morgues being full, an unusual high mortality rate in one region three days after the storm hit, and other anomalies.
The signers included Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Edward Markey, Richard Blumenthal, Bernie Sanders, Chris Van Hollen, Dick Durbin, Kamala Harris, Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker.
A Homeland Security spokesman said the department does not comment on congressional correspondence with the secretary, but would respond to the members as appropriate.