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As Trump Tours Puerto Rico, Hospital Ship Arrives to Provide Aid

President Trump and Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló listen to residents and survey hurricane damage and recovery efforts in a neighborhood in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Oct. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Trump and Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló listen to residents and survey hurricane damage and recovery efforts in a neighborhood in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Oct. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Puerto Rican officials have yet to determine the death toll from Hurricane Maria, but President Donald Trump said Tuesday they should be "proud" of the count of 16 they have certified to date.

"We saved a lot of lives," Trump said on his arrival in San Juan 13 days after the storm hit.

He said the deaths in the aftermath of Maria would pale in comparison to a "real catastrophe like Katrina," a reference to the official death toll of 1,833 from the hurricane that devastated Louisiana in August 2005.

Trump also said costs of the civilian and military response to the disaster in Puerto Rico could impact the U.S. budget.

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"I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack," he said in what appeared to be a joking aside, "because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that's fine. We've saved a lot of lives."

For more than a week, Puerto Rican officials have given the certified death toll as 16, while stressing that they have been unable to communicate with hospitals and morgues to give a more accurate count.

At an earlier briefing in San Juan with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello said, "We recognize that there are likely to be more deaths. We just don't know the magnitude."

Rossello met Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on their arrival. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been highly critical of the scope and pace of the relief effort, was also at the airport and briefly shook hands with Trump.

The president and first lady later met in a San Juan neighborhood with victims of the storm and took a helicopter tour of the devastated island.

Trump also went by helicopter offshore to the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and met with sailors and Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit involved in the relief effort.

During Trump's visit, the hospital ship USNS Comfort, with 200 hospital beds and more than 500 medical personnel aboard, arrived offshore to begin providing aid, the Navy said.

In addition, the amphibious assault ship Wasp is expected to arrive offshore Wednesday with 13 rotary aircraft aboard to boost the number of rotary aircraft from the active-duty force involved in Puerto Rico relief to 38, U.S. Northern Command said in a statement.

The total number of rotary aircraft involved from the active duty, Reserves and Guard is about 80, the Defense Department said.

The helicopters and Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft will help meet one of Rossello's priorities in getting food, water and medical assistance to communities in the island's interior, where roads have been impassable.

In a news conference at the airport, Trump made the comparison between Maria and Katrina:

"Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you [look] at the tremendous -- hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died" in Katrina.

"And you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody's ever seen anything like this," he said.

He turned to Rossello and asked, "What is your death count as of this moment -- 17?" Rossello said it was 16. "Sixteen people certified -- 16 people versus in the thousands" in Katrina, Trump said.

"You can be very proud," he told Rossello.

Trump then walked past tables laden with food packets, flashlights and other supplies. He shook hands and took selfies with a cheering crowd in front of the tables. He handed out some items and gave two-handed flips of paper towels and other goods to reach those in the rear.

"I think it's now acknowledged what a great job we've done, and people are looking at that," Trump said.

"And in Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. And I'll tell you what, I think we've done just as good in Puerto Rico, and it's actually a much tougher situation," he said.

"But now the roads are cleared, communications is starting to come back. We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks," Trump said in a reference to goods piled up at the ports and awaiting distribution.

At his earlier briefing, Rossello said that only five percent of Puerto Ricans have power and more than half lack access to clean water. He said 10 of 69 hospitals on the island have electricity restored and the rest are relying on generators.

In Washington, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said in response to questions before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the amount of resources and troops being committed to Puerto Rico long term would have an effect on troop deployments to other areas.

"I assure you this is all hands on deck. There is no lack of resources," Dunford said, "even to the point that it's going to impact the deployment of troops next year.

"But that's OK, when it comes to helping Americans," he said of the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.

To date, there have been varying estimates from a number of official sources on the count of service members involved in the relief effort on the ground, but Dunford said the total is about 11,000 -- about 4,000 active-duty personnel and about 7,000 from the National Guard.

In response to FEMA and local governors, NorthCom has control of the military response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, while U.S. Southern Command is focusing on the Leeward Islands.

NorthCom said that Air Force Air Mobility Command flights Tuesday were delivering 246,000 liters of water, 155,000 meals, tarpaulins, and additional sandbags to Puerto Rico to shore up the Guajataca dam in the island's northeast.

On Monday, 11 flights brought to Puerto Rico 12 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, a Department of Veteran Affairs mobile medical unit, and an additional four MV-22 Ospreys, NorthCom said.

The DoD said 10 of Puerto Rico's airports are open, and all nine FEMA-priority ports are also open with restrictions at some, including the port at the former naval air station at Roosevelt Roads on the eastern end of the island.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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