SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Surveying the twisted metal wreckage in one San Juan neighborhood, Vice President Mike Pence came face-to-face with Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane urgency.
“If you’re going to help us, it’s got to be now,” a bearded young man told Pence as the vice president walked with Puerto Rico’s governor and others along a street hit hard by Hurricane Maria. “We need more people, we need more communications,” the man told Pence, adding that he was “a little bit angry.”
Pence, wearing short sleeves and cowboy boots, patted the man on the shoulder and later told reporters, “We understand his frustration when you think of the sheer magnitude of the loss, the impact on families, the loss of life being so grievous.” He promised that better days were ahead and the Trump administration would be “here for the long haul.”
Pence’s empathy and reassurances in San Juan and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Friday served as a humbler follow-up to President Donald Trump’s visit this week to Puerto Rico. Maria has wiped out power across the island and left Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people short of food and supplies.
Trump spoke at length in self-congratulatory tones Tuesday about the strength of the federal recovery effort and made light of how costly Puerto Rico’s troubles were to the federal budget. He tossed rolls of paper towels to the crowd in San Juan and compared the island’s lower death toll with the “real catastrophe” of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when more than 1,800 people died.
Pence, for his part, said there had been “steady progress” on opening roads and addressing other challenges, but acknowledged, “we have a long way to go.” He told Puerto Ricans he had “faith in President Trump’s leadership, his determination to stand by Puerto Rico in this challenging time.”
The vice president joined with religious leaders at the Iglesia Santa Bernardita church in San Juan, which has fed about 60 to 100 people every day since the storm. Pence carried a tray of sandwiches into the church’s reception area and then walked along the long white tables, shaking hands.
During a church service, Pence listened as Father Willie Pena spoke of the resiliency of the people, explaining that he tells those who talk about still being in the dark, “We do not have electricity but we do have light.”
The vice president offered an upbeat message, predicting that one day the congregation would say, “Puerto Rico se levanta, Puerto Rico is rising.” He then bowed his head as his wife, Karen, led the church in prayer. They later met with emergency responders.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Pence visited an Episcopal church in Frederiksted that was battered by the storm, losing sections of its roof. Church leaders vowed to rebuild as sunlight streamed onto the pews from above and water and dirt lined the church’s white tile floor.
Sitting in the back of the church, Jose Sanchez, a 33-year-old construction worker, said Pence’s visit “builds morale. It gives us hope.”
As for Maria, Sanchez said: “It was a whipping that we received. It is something that people are never going to forget, like Katrina.”
Pence then boarded a military helicopter to view the damage from the air, looking on as his convoy flew over St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John — now marked by upended boats lying along the coastline, blue tarps dotting the tops of homes and vegetation ripped astray.
Pence described the wreckage as “overwhelming,” but told local leaders, “the resilience of the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands is even greater.”
Trump had hoped to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier in the week but the White House said difficult logistics in the aftermath of the storm prevented it from adding it to his trip to Puerto Rico.
There were few complaints. Kenneth E. Mapp, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, said the federal government had hurricane response efforts “down to a science.”
“There is no country that responds to disasters like the United States of America,” Mapp said, adding that the island is making progress in its recovery and he expects schools to reopen Tuesday.
On Twitter, follow Ken Thomas at @KThomasDC.