Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, on Friday sought to clarify her comments that the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was a “good news story” as she traveled to Puerto Rico amid scrutiny of the administration’s response.
“We will never be satisfied,” Duke told CNN and reporters traveling with her on the tarmac at San Juan International Airport.
The department announced the trip Thursday evening after Duke’s “good news” comments at the White House earlier that day. Traveling with the secretary Friday was a coterie of federal officials from across the administration, including the Department of Energy, Coast Guard, TSA, FDA, the Army Corps of Engineers and DHS. Puerto Rico’s congressional delegate also traveled with the group.
Duke told reporters that she is “happy” about how hard everyone is working together – the people, the government of Puerto Rico and federal officials – but said “there’s much much more work to do and we will never be satisfied. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re staying until people are back in their homes, the schools are open, and everyone is safe.”
Thursday, Duke stirred controversy when referring to the government’s response in Puerto Rico as a “good news story.”
“I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane,” Duke said.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Friday morning blasted Duke’s comments.
“This is a ‘people are dying’ story,” she said
On the plane Friday, official after official told the reporters gathered that much work remains and the government won’t rest until everyone in Puerto Rico has some semblance of normalcy.
Still, they reiterated their pride in the government’s response, emphasizing their efforts to work together and with the teams on the ground.
Duke also spoke alongside Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, and Rep. Jennifer Gonzalez, the delegate from the territory, during a press conference Friday.
In her remarks, Duke said she was proud of “Americans helping Americans.”
“I am proud of the work that Department of Defense, FEMA, and the territory, along with the first responders, are doing,” she said. “Clearly the situation here in Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane is not satisfactory, but together we are getting there. And the progress today is very, very strong.”
The agencies projected an air of intensity on the trip. Officials huddled over a map in the plane’s private cabin, briefing Duke on the situation on the ground and the work that needs to be done.
Army Corps of Engineers commander Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite told Duke and reporters that he expects that a small group of remote homes could take a year to have power restored.
Asked specifically by reporters for her reaction to the mayor’s rebuke of her “good news story” comments, Duke said she was referring to how well everyone is working together.
“The end of my statement about good news,” Duke said, “was it was good news that the people of Puerto Rico, the many public servants of the US and the government of Puerto Rico are working together and I do believe that that is the way – part of the way – we believe, and it’s nice to see the communities together trying to recover and support each other.”
Duke was speaking to reporters on the tarmac in San Juan before boarding a helicopter for an aerial look at the devastation. After the tour, she was set to hold a meeting with the governor of Puerto Rico and officials.
Traveling with Duke were TSA Administrator David Pekoske, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, Semonite, Coast Guard VADM Karl Schultz, DHS infrastructure official Christopher Krebs, and Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon.