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President Trump Criticizes Puerto Rican Leaders For their Efforts in Recovering from Hurricane Maria; Secretary of State Comments on Diplomatic Options with North Korea; New Poll Tracks Americans' Feelings Regarding NFL Players Kneeling During National Anthem; Donald Trump Criticizes Puerto Rican Leaders for Handling of Recovery Efforts; Interview with FEMA Director Brock Long. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired September 30, 2017 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[14:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again everyone, and thank you so much for being with me this Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.
We begin with a shocking string of verbal attacks from President Trump, written attacks, going after Puerto Rican leaders, yes, Puerto Rico, where more than 3 million Americans are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. In a series of tweets from his private club saying this morning, quote, the president saying this, quote, "The mayor of San Juan who was very complimentary only a few days ago has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump. Such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan and others in Puerto Rico who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort, 10,000 federal workers now on island doing a fantastic job."
Right now in Puerto Rico, nearly 1.5 people still have no access to clean drinking water. Some are being forced to fill up jugs in creeks and streams. More than 3 million people still have no electricity, and are waiting in line for hours just to get fuel. And these are the people the most powerful man in the world is attacking. The president saying this is an example of the mayor being nasty to him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, MAYOR, SAN JUAN: We are dying here. I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles long.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: We have team coverage from Puerto Rico to the White House. Let's start with CNN's Boris Sanchez in San Juan on the line with us. So Boris, tell us more about how the president's tweets are being received there.
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Fred. Yes, Puerto Ricans here are not responding well to the president's tweets. In fact a few comments from people that I spoke with, I can't repeat to you, not a very positive reception for what the president had to say about Puerto Ricans asking for more to be done for them, saying that the community needs to come together. Many people that I have spoken to say the community is together, helping one another. In fact I spoke with one person who told me she is a Trump supporter and she became emotional because she was taken aback by the president's comments. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GABRIELA GONZALEZ, SAN JUAN RESIDENT: As a matter of fact I'm working at the center of -- we're dealing with the things going in to be given. And they're working really hard there. And even 24 hours a day. So I don't know why he thinks we're not doing our job. But we have to have support from the United States. I mean, our men go to war to help the United States. Why can't he help us in this kind of matter?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SANCHEZ: Yes, Fred, and just like her, we are hearing others who are telling us that the president's comments were hurtful. They say we are Americans too. We're just as American as people in Florida and Texas. So why did we get the kind of response that the present had this morning when he didn't say anything like that about residents of Florida or Texas after storm the hit those areas.
I should tell you, Fred, one area of concern, the skies have gotten really dark around where we are. We're having connectivity issues right now in part because there is a storm headed for Puerto Rico. We're expecting rain this weekend, several inches falling on an area that's already saturated with water, neighborhoods that are still flooded. So the problems here in Puerto Rico are many, and there may be even more on the way, Fred.
WHITFIELD: All right, Boris Sanchez, thank you so much. Spotty communication there, but we all understand the conditions there, so communication is very difficult and volatile.
So the president tweeting the attacks from his private golf club in New Jersey where he is spending the weekend, his attacks via Twitter. CNN's Ryan Nobles is live for us in Branchburg near the president's club. So Ryan, anything more from the president on what he was hoping the goal to be from these tweets just ahead of his visit to Puerto Rico?
RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as always, the White House telling us that the president's tweets speak for himself, but they are putting out a schedule that the president has in front of him this afternoon where he is going to be on the phone with a number of people from the region hardest hit by hurricane Maria to get an update on the federal response and what more the U.S. government can do.
[14:05:00] Let's take a look at the president's busy 2:00 hour. At 2:00, he's expected to speak first with the FEMA administrator Brock Long. Then at 2:15 he'll have a conversation with the governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rossello. Of course Rossello, CNN asked him this morning about the president's tweets regarding the work of the people in Puerto Rico, so it will be interesting to see if that comes up in the conversation this afternoon.
Then he'll talk with the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, Jenniffer Gonzales Colon. Then at 2:35 he has a conversation with the former governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuno. Then at 2:45, a conversation with the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands Kenneth Mapp. And this all comes ahead of his planned trip to Puerto Rico on Tuesday. As we've already heard from Boris, the reception that the president may expect to get when he arrives there may not be the most warm given the fact that he spent his morning directly criticizing the people on the ground there that are doing their best to recover from this deadly and tragic hurricane. Fred?
WHITFIELD: Right. And absent from that phone list is a direct qualification conversation with the mayor of San Juan who has taken the brunt of the president's sentiment via tweet. All right, thanks so much Ryan Nobles, appreciate it.
Let's discuss all of this now with my panel. Joining me right now "TIME" magazine contributor Jay Newton-Small, CNN political analyst and executive editor for "Sentinel" newspaper Brian Karem, and CNN senior media correspondent, host of "Reliable Sources," And Brian Stelter, and CNN political commentator and former communications director for the Republican National Committee Doug Heye. Good to see all of you.
Doug, you first. What are other fellow Republicans saying about the president's approach, these tweets today, direct criticism to Puerto Rican leaders?
DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: According to Ronald Reagan, they're saying there he goes again. And they're saying it not in an ah, shucks manner. They're saying it in a very disappointed, despondent manner. I can tell you the folks at the Republican National Committee now and the White House press shop are not having a good day because the president's not helping his cause here.
With the schedule that Ryan just laid out, those are all the good and proper things this president or any president should be doing. But ultimately it's his tweets that are going to rule the day. It's the tweets that the people in Puerto Rico are hearing more loudly than anything.
And I can tell you I was in London last month and met with a lot of government officials who said very similar things about when President Trump was criticizing the mayor of London after the terror attack. Whatever you think of Donald Trump being a counterpuncher, these do not help solve the problem at hand, and ultimately, that's the problem.
WHITFIELD: And Brian Karem, how does this kind of lay the groundwork for his trip in just a matter of days? I mean what's the tone going to be?
BRIAN KAREM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You're looking at two issues. First of all, does the federal government really understand what's going on the ground in Puerto Rico? They've got no excuse if they don't. There was some disconnect in the press room on Thursday. I point-blank read a text from relief workers who had boots on the ground, and they said we were nearing an apocalyptic event within the next 48 to 72 hours and that there were people dying. And Tom Bossert from that podium was shocked.
But they know now. They've had two days. If they didn't know if the first week, they know now. And they haven't made the appropriate steps. FEMA is overworked and stretched, and they have budget problems and they've addressed some of those.
The issue for the president and the one he's going to take forward is the appearance he's picking on victims. How do you play the back nine in New Jersey while there are people literally dying. And, by the way, they're Americans literally dying. You didn't say this about Texas, you didn't say this about Florida. You're saying this about the people of Puerto Rico, and that leads all kinds of credence to those that feel you're out of touch and have a problem with people of color. And that's an issue he's got to deal with going forward. It's not one that he's dealt with very well, and it's certainly not one that he dealt with at all with any temerity this morning. Those tweets for many people were insulting.
And there's just no way you can look at it any other way. When you are -- when the president of the United States is on a golf course and there are people, Americans, literally trying to get food and water and a roof over their head, then that's a problem. I urge the president, if he really is going to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, stay a while. Get your hands dirty. Go into the back country, go into the rural areas and spend time and see how these people are really struggling to survive. But he'll jet in h, he'll jet out, and that will be it. I urge him to stay and look and see how people are truly suffering.
WHITFIELD: And Jay, even if these same tweets came from the president if he was in the White House, I mean, aside from being on the golf course or being at his golf resort, it is the choice of words, it is salt to the wounds, it's victimizing victims again, particularly when he is critical of the mayor, saying that she is showing poor leadership.
[14:10:10] And this use of the word "they," that hits hard particularly for people who have already expressed that they are not feeling that they are not being spoken to as though they are American citizens. And then the president says "they." So how does he recover from this if that can be a goal on Tuesday when he visits?
JAY NEWTON-SMALL, CONTRIBUTOR, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Absolutely, Fred. The use of the word "they" is just so classic Donald Trump, and it's such as divisive term of us versus them, they're not doing what they need to be doing. We're doing what we need to be doing.
And it is always the way he handles things when he gets criticized and he feels under attack. He lashes out and he blames other people. And this is a very par for the course for him. But at the same time, these are people who are American citizens, who are absolutely as American as anybody living in Washington, D.C. We have the same amount of voting rights. In fact neither Puerto Ricans nor people in Washington, D.C. have representation in Congress, so they're literally the same, territories of the United States.
But, this whole sense of "they," he always invoked -- we don't ask people in Florida after Irma or people in Texas after hurricane Harvey to pick up the ball and why aren't they doing more to help their communities recover. In this sense he literally is saying they, the Puerto Ricans, this island in bringing up their issue of Puerto Rico's debt, which they are receiving a federal bailout for, as if to say this is somehow less American, they're less deserving. And that's absolutely not the case. In any response to any storm, America has always said to its territories, to its states, we are here for you. We're here to help you recover, and that is part of being America and American.
WHITFIELD: And Brian, we heard that from Americans, Puerto Ricans who spoke to us. We just had a sound bit from Ms. Gabriella Gonzalez who was saying she was so surprised to hear this, that she and others are working so hard at the command center trying to distribute, but many of them still feel like they're doing it on their own without the support system, and that the president would be critical of them is hurtful.
KAREM: Well, if the president --
WHITFIELD: Sorry. Brian Stelter. I'm sorry.
BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: This notion of something that Fareed Zakaria said on air last night. He said we have to face the fact that there are first class and second class citizens in the United States. That is a disgraceful fact that exists. And Puerto Ricans feel right now they are second class citizens. And some of the president's words reinforced the idea they've being treated as second class citizens.
This falls into President Trump's race problem, whether it's Charlottesville or last weekend, black athletes in the NFL and NBA. Now here we are talking about the island of Puerto Rico and the president talking about us versus them.
I would just point out to put this in context, hurricane Maria made landfall 10 days ago. And two days after it made landfall, the president was in Alabama trying to rally support for Luther Strange unsuccessfully. He talked about the NFL, he talked about the Alabama race, lots of other topics. He then went back to his golf course in New Jersey and did not do really anything to send signals about the Puerto Rican relief efforts for the days following the landfall of the hurricane.
So yes, now, we're eight or 10 days later and he's going on a tweet storm about it. But when the history of this disaster is written, we're going to look back at those very first days. And I would argue I personally didn't pay enough attention as a reporter to Puerto Rico. And I think the major networks probably should have devoted more resources. We were thankful that CNN has some crews there. Now there's many more crews there. There's a lot of reasons why on the initial days after this disaster
there wasn't more attention, there wasn't more government action. But I think when we look back at the president, and what he wasn't tweeting this time last week, what he wasn't tweeting this time last week, that's going to end up being a stain on the kind of history of this disaster, that there wasn't more presidential engagement right after of the storm hit.
WHITFIELD: Brian Karem, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Broadway's "Hamilton," mostly of Puerto Rican descent, I want to read to you what he tweeted in response to the president, saying this, "You're going straight to hell. Donald Trump, no long lines for you. Someone will say right this way, sir. They'll clear a path." Do you see that the president's handling of this is more consequential than just about anything else preceding and perhaps even following from this point forward?
KAREM: Well, that's a very classy tweet. I will merely say this, that the president of the United States has turned a disaster into a political football. And these are people suffering. This isn't politics. And you need to get your head straight and get people involved in trying to solve the problem. And that hasn't been done.
[14:15:02] Yes, he's combative. Yes, he likes to go after people. But there's a time and place for that and this isn't it. Did we not get enough people there? Maybe we couldn't because, listen to the president's own words. Puerto Rico was totally destroyed. What part of totally destroyed you don't get? There's no roof over your head, there's no clean water, there's no food. What we heard two days ago was that stuff was getting there but it couldn't get distributed because the island was such a disaster area.
So why aren't we putting more people on the ground? Why did it take so long? Those are questions like Brain said that we're going to have to look at over the next few months and over the next few years. Bottom line is I'm not going to stay the president should go to the nether regions. I would prefer he go to Puerto Rico and get his elbows involved in it, put some elbow grease in it and show everybody else in the United States he really does care about us. If he's not going to go down there and do anything more than pose for the cameras, why go?
WHITFIELD: And so Doug, hindsight always 20/20, but then in the here and now, knowing the vast resources on the mainland and even in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands or even nearby, why not air drops? I mean, we do have military ships in the region. We've got the means of helicopter drops, et cetera. And you're talking about traversing, if some of these resource can't make it by way of roads that have been washed out, then why isn't this administration sounding more urgent in ways in which to get resources to people? Isn't that a giant criticism that the president needs to address?
HEYE: I think it is. And obviously it took a while for the Jones Act to be lifted to get foreign ships there that could have been done overnight. For the administration, this is also an issue of competence. They handled the situation in Florida very well. They handled the situation in Texas very well. If they were able to essentially run the table and run all three of these disaster responses well, it would say to even people who oppose the president that this is somebody who can get things done, whose business oriented fashion can produce results. But now that's an open question that all goes back to what has always been the central question about Donald Trump, and that's his temperament.
WHITFIELD: Go ahead, Brian.
KAREM: His temperament gets in the way of the governing. And that's the problem.
WHITFIELD: And taking it personally. I mean, this is now personal between he -- well, his personal attacks of the mayor.
KAREM: He takes everything personally. So when the mayor is telling you that, hey, we're dying here, look, we've known this. In the press we confronted the administration with this on Thursday. And if you heard the acting head of homeland security saying this was a good news story, the administration is just woefully inaccurate in what's going on in Puerto Rico. They have no real clue.
And there are people on the ground, and instead of listening to what the people are saying on the ground, they're accusing us of being fake news. They've gone after us. Don't believe what your lying eyes tell you, believe me. And that's a problem. This is a natural disaster. This is not politics. You cannot treat it that way. And then he continues to do so speaks to his temperament and his lack of ability to garner support and get things done.
WHITFIELD: That's the knee-jerk reaction. Believe what I say, not what everybody else is showing you and telling you.
STELTER: That's right. I disagree in part with Brian a little bit. I think this is political. It has been politicized not just by the president but by his supporters in the rightwing press that are actually already blaming the media for all this. So it is political unfortunately.
KAREM: It shouldn't be.
STELTER: It's going to divide people, but it should not be. It absolutely should not be. I think what we're all circling around here is it's just not presidential behavior. The tweets are not.
KAREM: It's not human behavior.
NEWTON-SMALL: I would say --
KAREM: It's just not human behavior. These people are suffering. Why don't we get together and help them? It's not right or left. It's people, American people.
NEWTON-SMALL: This is also something he has always done. Last year when there was a storm, and President Obama went out and reacted to that, Donald Trump tweeted snarkily that he was just trying to get attention and garner political attention. When super storm Sandy hit, again he said the same thing, that it was going to help Obama's reelection and that was his only response to the storm. This is not the only time he's done this. This is classic Donald Trump. He always treats these disasters, these incidences as politics and not as something that is real and actually affects human beings.
KAREM: Preaching to the choir.
STELTER: Speaker Ryan, Mitch McConnell, let's hear from GOP leaders, whether they agree with the president on this or not. I'm really curious to see if Congressional Republicans get questioned about the president's latest tweet.
WHITFIELD: That was a discussion being had earlier, which is where is everybody else? Why are we not hearing?
KAREM: Wait until Monday and Tuesday, Dana Bash will be in the congressional hallways pinning every Republican member down on that, rest assured.
[14:20:05] WHITFIELD: All right, Jay Newton-Small, Brian Karem, Brian Stelter, Doug Heye, thanks to all of you, appreciate it.
Up next, a direct line to Kim Jong-un for the first time ever, the Trump administration admitting the U.S. is in direct communication with the North Korean government over its missile and nuclear tests. We'll take you overseas for the latest next.
WHITFIELD: Turning now to North Korea and its nuclear threat, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the most immediate need is to calm the situation down and for the north to stop firing off missiles. He also said the U.S. has direct channels to Pyongyang and is talking directly to North Korean officials. Tillerson, who is now heading back home, made the remarks following a meeting with China's president. Let's go live now to CNN's Matt Rivers in Beijing. Matt?
[14:25:07] MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The secretary of state was only in Beijing for about 12 hours but he did manage to make some pretty big news at a briefing with reporters that we attended right before he left back to the United States. It was in that briefing that he said for the first time publicly that the Trump administration when it comes specifically to this missile testing program does have direct lines of communication with Pyongyang.
So this was an off-camera briefing, but let me read you the quote that we pulled from the audio recording we took. The secretary said in part, quote, "We are probing so stay tuned" when asked about the North Korean's willingness to have talks. He said "We asked the North Koreans, would you like to talk? We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We are not in a dark situation or a blackout. We have a couple of channels to Pyongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them directly through our own channels."
And that is significant. This is the first time that we've heard the U.S. admit that they're having the potential for a diplomatic solution. They're talking on a diplomatic level between both sides about this escalating tension in this part of the world. And frankly, for those of us in this part of the world, the people who live here, it's just been a lot about waiting for the other shoe to drop. What is President Trump going to say? What is Kim Jong-un going to say? How is the situation going to get worse?
And this is pretty significant I think in the fact that for the first time in a long it seems like we're actually dialing things down a little bit and saying maybe we should looking at a diplomatic solution here rather than a ratcheting up of tensions. And look, we're not anywhere near a lasting diplomatic solution that will come from this. The secretary of state said this is very much in the beginning stages but it is a welcome change, I think, from the fiery rhetoric we've gotten used to hearing on both sides.
WHITFIELD: All right, Matt Rivers, thank you so much from Beijing, appreciate that.
So with just one week ago when President Trump issued an attack on some NFL players using this offensive language.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: Well today in the very state where he made those comments a big college football game will get under way. How will the NCAA respond following this week of emotion and debate? That is next.
[14:31:53] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: According to a new poll Americans are sharply divided over whether NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem are doing the right thing. It was just last week President Trump attacked the NFL protest using language, we warn you, is offensive.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now? Out. He's fired. He's fired!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: Today college football players are taking the field in the very state where President Trump made those comments. CNN's Kaylee Hartung is live for us in Auburn, Alabama, where a big game kicks off later on today. So what are people saying, Kaylee?
KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fred, it's Auburn and Mississippi State take the field, they won't be on the field for the national anthem as is the case for college teams across the country. Typically the school bands play the anthem and the teams run out shortly thereafter. So in talking with coaches from both of these staffs, they tell me it really hasn't been a topic they've had to discuss with their players. If anyone has an opinion, they're welcome to share it of course, but it hasn't been a topic that has dominated the conversation among college football teams as it has in the NFL.
But that of course doesn't mean that the fans aren't talking about it. While many people here today have told me they're just here to watch a football game and they look forward to moving on from this topic, when you're in a conservative stronghold like Alabama, it's easy to find a lot of people who agree with President Trump's comments. In fact of all the people I've talked to today, I haven't found anyone who disagreed with the actual content of his statement, though many will say they disagree with the way he spoke about the case.
It was interesting, I just spoke with a family here tailgating among the masses, an Auburn conservative family from southern Alabama who said this topic came up at their dinner table last night, parents of an Auburn student, and she describes this conversation with her parent to me, she said at the end they agreed to disagree, but it was a very thoughtful conversation, one in which she recognized that she and her parents were coming at this from different perspectives, different ends of the spectrum.
And she see this debate as one in which you've got to remember that NFL players are trying to use the platform that they have to make a point. Her parents stood there very firmly saying they see such an act of kneeling during the anthem, regardless of what you're trying to protest, as unpatriotic. And yet all that being said and thoughtful discussions like that happening, as one man here just told me, Fred, some things are bigger than football. They believe that even in the state of Alabama, and he said patriotism is bigger than football.
WHITFIELD: All right, Kaylee Hartung, thank you so much in Auburn.
And we'll be right back.
[14:38:45] WHITFIELD: With the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Puerto Rico and residents in desperate need of food, water and other necessities, help from all over the U.S. is pouring in. CNN's Polo Sandoval is live for us out of the Bronx, New York, where people have had a drive there of collecting and donating items in hopes of it eventually getting to the island. So Polo, what kinds are things are people delivering and what are their sentiments?
POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Just about anything that you can think of, Fred. We have seen boxes of diapers, women's, men's clothing, children's clothing, water, food supplies. We have seen just a tremendous outpouring of support here in the streets of the Bronx. Just about anything you can think of. You can see it's piled up high. This is just a small measure of what people have not only driven out here, but they've even walked it here. I've seen people with carts, with supplies for the people of Puerto Rico, and also for people of Mexico too, the victims of the earthquake. You can see the supplies just continue to go on.
And just behind this giant pile of clothing that's going to be heading to Puerto Rico soon, you see a massive crowd that's gathering. So you have the sounds of salsa serving as a sound track for this massive effort here.
[14:40:00] The people here, many of them are obviously directly tied to what's happening in Puerto Rico. It is the Bronx. They are cultural, there are family ties to that island about 1,600 miles away. And as you've about to hear from some residents here, they certainly are hoping that some of these supplies will end up in Puerto Rico as many have family there. And then also when it comes to the politics behind what have been taking place here, including President Trump's tweets from this morning in which he's criticizing the mayor of San Juan of Puerto Rico, we have heard some disappointment here from some of the residents. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Puerto Rico is part of United States. We're all Americans. We should all be doing everything we can, anything possible to help Puerto Rico. Trump can say whatever he wants. But it's not getting done because I have family in Puerto Rico, and they have no water. They have no lights, no electricity, nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They are in a devastating situation. They need food. People who are hungry, babies who are crying that don't have the basic necessities for comfort. And so what's important to know and keep in mind is that they are still severely hurting. There are literally no trees with leaves on them to even cover them from the sun. So it is desperate and imperative that they receive what they need.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SANDOVAL: A desperate need, as that resident just put it. And all of those supplies are going into some of the tractor trailers that you may be able to see off in the distance, Fred. I've told by organizers that they've already filled up about five of these and they expect to fill up another one.
Where is all this going? It's all going to be staged in New Jersey before it gets shipped to Puerto Rico come tomorrow, possibly even on Monday. But again, as you just heard from resident, there is real concern about the loved ones, about the loved ones that they have in desperate need on the island of Puerto Rico, and much of these supplies, if not everything, will be heading there in the next few days.
WHITFIELD: Polo Sandoval, thank you so much out of the Bronx, New York, appreciate that. We'll have much more right after this.
[14:46:33] WHITFIELD: Three days before President Trump is set to visit hard hit Puerto Rico he has launched a tweet attack on the mayor of San Juan accusing her of poor leadership after she begged for help and criticized the federal response. In the president's tweet storm this morning the president even suggested the island isn't doing enough to help itself, saying, and I'm quoting here now, "They want everything to be done for them."
Joining me right now is the FEMA administrator Brock Long. Brock, good to see you joining us from D.C. So how have the president's tweets either helped or hurt the response?
BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: I got to be honest with you. We've been laser-focused making sure we have got all the commodities and we can push forward as much as possible as well as helping to stabilize the situation in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
WHITFIELD: But the tweets that were sent by the president said that there is such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan and others in Puerto Rico. You've seen the mayor make her personal pleas on our air about what is needed. We've seen pictures of her actually assisting people firsthand. The president even said they want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. Surely you have heard from people in Puerto Rico who you have had direct lines of communication with, and what are they feeling when they hear the president's sentiments like this?
LONG: First of all, so we have great communication with Governor Rossello, and I know the president has spoken with him today. The vice president was with us as well. Not only the Governor Rossello but Governor Mapp of the Virgin Islands, they were hit pretty hard as well.
The bottom line is we have great communication. The governors are part of our unified command effort. The problem we have with the mayor unfortunately is unity of command is what is needed, is ultimately what's needed to be successful in this response. The bottom line is we've had a joint field office established for numerous days in San Juan, and what we need is for the mayor to make her way to the joint field office and get plugged into what's going on and be successful. So I think that's the bottom line on that tweet.
For me, I have to make sure that I am laser-focused on coordinating the federal efforts of the government down through that joint field office to make sure we're meeting the needs that unified command, not only FEMA but DOD and the governor setting forward to help the people of Puerto Rico.
So right now my focus is helping Puerto Ricans and American citizens in the Virgin Islands as well. And not only on top of that, this is complex. The bottom line is right now we have disasters in 20 different states that we're working. Don't forget about Harvey, don't forget about Irma and all the work that's been done. We still have a tremendous amount of staff across this country working very complex issues around the clock. So get rid of the noise and start focusing on the progress that has been made.
WHITFIELD: So you along with the president will be heading to Puerto Rico this coming week. You've already visited there. What were your observations when you were in Puerto Rico, and what did you assess, what are the needs you want to address after having seen it firsthand?
LONG: Right. So I've actually been down twice to Puerto Rico, once after Irma, and I can't remember what day it is. I guess it was Monday when we went back down after Maria. The bottom line is the whole purpose is my troops are to ground to make sure that I can look the governor in his eyes and make sure we are a unified command, which we are, and that we set forward the way forward in unified command.
[14:50:09] I'll be headed back down most likely Monday, possibly tomorrow, but most likely Monday and Tuesday as well to make sure that we're continuing to make progress. This was a complex event and I don't think people fully understand how difficult it is because of the geography getting to an island and having to understand that we were bringing up the power grid up to 90 percent functional after Irma, and then it's all wiped out and knocked out again. So when we were finishing up the response of Irma and being threatened with Maria we had to pull people off the island because we never want our staff to take away vital shelter spots for the citizens of Puerto Rico.
So when you pull everything out, Maria comes in and damages all the ports, the airports, the waterway ports and everything else and makes it tremendously difficult to get everything back in. We did have food on the island. We did maintain a major president in DOD on the island and staff that are sitting there to make sure that they're ready to go.
WHITFIELD: So what have you learned in the past few days on how do you get that stuff? You talk about unified command. If there are already resources on that island, having been there now twice, and you're about to go again, what have you learned in terms of how to distribute, because we've talked to a number about of people, meaning our reporters and crews have talked to a number of people, been able to get to certain locations that have been difficult, and people still say that they need a lot of those supplies that you say are on the island to get to them. So how are you getting -- what are you learning in terms of how you transport those things? How do you air drop? How do you deliver?
LONG: So the first thing is that, one, we have to establish pathways. So it was obvious we had to get the incident support bases in which we were calling airports, for instance, support bases open. We also had to get the waterway ports open. We utilized what we maintained on the island first. We tried to distribute those out. But before any of that can happen you have to be able to clear debris off the roads. And so --
WHITFIELD: But how some people getting --
LONG: Hang on. Hang on. Well, my mission --
WHITFIELD: And --
LONG: Hang on. My mission is way more difficult than trying to get to one area. My mission is to get to 78 communities and the rural areas of the entire island. So what we do is we set up a baseline capability where we have 11 regional distribution hubs that have been established. We have great communication with the mayors who are actually marshaling their own people to be able to come in to grab the commodities, take them back to their communities.
And that allows us also to begin to, as we were able to get aircraft support in to be able to drop stuff in. We're also doubling up. So not only were our search and rescue groups covering the entire island, they were also taking water and food with them.
The same with our disaster assistance support staff where we already successfully registered 45,000 Americans living in Puerto Rico. But as they go in and help people get into our system so that we can give them financial assistance immediately, they're also taking water and meals. It's dang near impossible to get to every single household.
WHITFIELD: It is complicated, but how are you measuring or gaining progress? When there are still a number of people, you know, and I'm sure many people in Puerto Rico are not complaining that every person needs are not being met at the same time, but there are a volume of people in so many communities who are not seeing anything, who are being resourceful within their own communities. So how do you reach them, and what's the timeline in which to do so?
LONG: So every day, more and more routine is being restored. So for example, some of the statistics we were briefed out on by unified command in Puerto Rico is a third of the telecom capability has been coming back. We've opened up 11 major highways. We were able to successfully establish 765 gas stations being able to securely get fuel to those gas stations.
The other thing is with the routine is that our business COC and private sector partners are reporting that 49 percent of the grocery store and retail centers are beginning to come back online. Obviously, these direct statistics are going to change hour by hour and day by day, but I do think that you have to start see some fundamental changes in the routine.
Obviously some of the hardest hit areas and the rural areas, the ones that are hardest to get to, as we were saying before the storm hit, power's going to be off for multiple, multiple months. The entire grid was wiped out. The sewage systems, the water systems, the roadway systems, everything was wiped out. The local government had a diminished capacity because many of the citizens living in Puerto Rico were victims. Same with the state. The governor is doing everything --
WHITFIELD: Will you be setting up more distribution centers? Will you be setting up more distribution centers? LONG: Yes. And the goal is that it's not just the -- we're actively
working on that now. FOX News was showing three container ships that were coming into port earlier this morning. So more and more supplies are coming in, and the bottom line is that the distribution is going to continue. But as we're doing that, the more important thing is to get the emergency power grid, the emergency power restored, the power grid restored so that the private sector can come back up.
Disaster response, a successful disaster response, is dependent on the entire community. It can't just be dependent on the federal government.
WHITFIELD: But it all has to be simultaneous, so while you're working on the power grid, people are thirsty, they need water, their babies need diapers, they need, et cetera. So people there, they have an expectation that simultaneous many of these needs will be met while the power grid is being restored, well cell towers are being restored.
LONG: Right. And we're doing everything we can. I go to bed every night knowing that I have done the best I can to marshal all of these federal resources, and the federal government has been putting everything down, trying to get everything into Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Texas, Florida, Georgia, all of the other states that have been impacted in the last 35 days. We're doing everything that we can and moving stuff in as the situation allows. It's complex.
Today, our response is hampered by bad weather. You're going have flash flooding. It's going to occur in portions of Puerto Rico. So the bottom line is nobody inside the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants anybody to go without food and water. We bust our rear ends. These guys are incredibly dedicated. But at the end of the day we can't do it all by ourselves.
And so the governor is stepping up. He's trying to muster his people back in place, and then eventually we're going to able to queue more and more resources in from nongovernmental organizations, faith based organizations, and in some cases the citizens will be able to come back online and help, be able to be resources as well.
WHITFIELD: We're going to leave it right there. Safe travels as you embark on yet another journey there to Puerto Rico. Brock Long, thanks so much for your time, appreciate it.
And thank so much for being with me this Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We'll have much more straight ahead in the news room after this.