SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Brushing aside criticism of his administration's response to Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday, hailing the recovery effort as an "amazing job" by first responders, telling officials they should be "proud" of a death toll that stood in double digits instead of thousands.
Nearly two weeks after the Category 4 storm raked the island, Trump, making his fourth visit to a hurricane zone in a month, lavished praise on local officials who spoke highly of him, while taking a veiled swipe at San Juan's mayor, who had previously characterized initial recovery efforts as ineffective.
In a televised meeting with officials in a hangar at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Trump struck an upbeat note about progress made since the storm struck on Sept. 20, knocking out the power grid, snatching away cellphone service, isolating dozens of rural communities and leaving hundreds of thousands scrambling for food, water, medicine, cash and gasoline.
But as sometimes happens when Trump makes off-the-cuff comments, the tone of his arrival remarks seemed jarring at times. He made an oddly jovial reference to the cost of the recovery effort, telling assembled officials: "I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you threw our budget a little out of whack!"
The president, who has previously drawn attention to the island's crippling debt and faltering infrastructure, then added: "But that's fine."
Trump also referred favorably to the official death count on the island — 16, but expected to rise — by comparing it to the fatality toll when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, killing an estimated 1,800 people.
"Sixteen people certified versus in the thousands," he said. "You can be very proud."
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello later announced that the number of deaths connected to the storm had risen from 16 to 34. Nineteen of the 34 were a direct result of the storm, the rest indirectly connected to the hurricane.
Some residents welcomed Trump's visit as a sign that more aid was on the way, but were disturbed by earlier comments seen as disparaging of Puerto Ricans and their local leaders.
"He needs to see the devastation. He needs to put his own thoughts and politics aside," said Divinia Marin, 55, whose home flooded during the storm.
Earlier in the day, Rossello had pointed to nascent signs of recovery, but said he would seek to convey the enormous scope of the disaster to the visiting president.
"We need more help," the governor told reporters in San Juan as Trump was en route. "It's 3.4 million U.S. citizens who we need to get that water, that food — we still need to do a lot more."
At Calvary Chapel church, Trump handed out supplies, drawing some smiles when he lobbed packaged paper towels into a cellphone camera-wielding crowd. "The job that's been done here is really nothing short of a miracle," he said.
Some who hadn't gotten close to the president, though, worried whether he had gotten a message of urgent need.
Efrain Rivera, 43, employed by the public works department in the hard-hit coastal city of Yabucoa, said he knew of half a dozen elderly people whose deaths he considered an indirect result of the storm.
"We have received very little aid," he said. "We are working to recover ourselves. We need medicine, oxygen to take care of people."
Wrapping up his nearly eight-hour visit with an aerial tour, the president flew by helicopter to a Navy ship offshore, the Kearsarge, where he shook hands with service members and met with the governor of the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, Kenneth Mapp, before boarding Air Force One for the return flight.
Leaving Washington earlier Tuesday, Trump hailed his administration's recovery efforts in the territory, shrugging off criticism that the initial federal response was less robust than similar efforts when hurricanes struck Texas and Florida.
"It's now acknowledged what a great job we've done," Trump told reporters at the White House as he and first lady Melania Trump prepared to depart the White House by helicopter before their flight to San Juan aboard Air Force One.
"In Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus," the president said. "And I'll tell you what — I think we've done just as good in Puerto Rico."
During his visit, the president made a seeming attempt to back away from days of Twitter attacks on San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz — though upon arriving, he seemed to take a dig at her by praising Rosello, who has been careful to couple appeals for more aid with praise for the administration.
"Right from the beginning this governor did not play politics," Trump said in the hangar meeting, to applause.
Over the weekend, Trump derided the mayor's "poor leadership" and implied that Puerto Ricans were not doing enough to help themselves. He also indirectly slammed the mayor in a tweet decrying "politically motivated ingrates" who criticized the scope and scale of the initial relief effort.
Embarking on his trip, Trump said the mayor had "come back a long way," though without detailing what in Cruz's stance had changed.
The mayor, who has made no direct response to Trump's Twitter attacks, was among those who shook hands with the president on his arrival, but she was not invited to speak during his initial talks.
Cruz said she met with Trump, along with the mayors of Ponce and Guaynabo, but said she wished he had seen more of the island's devastation. She said FEMA was slow to respond and the agency expected those applying for assistance to use the internet, although many lack electricity.
"They need to adapt to the reality of the situation," Cruz said. "We're talking about life and death. It's an American value to come to the aid of those in need."
She urged Puerto Ricans to contact members of Congress to urge them to support an aid package for the island.
"This has to do with people who are hungry, who need dialysis ... there is a moral imperative to help Puerto Rico."
Federally directed aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands has dramatically picked up in recent days. But critics point to initial slowness in waiving the Jones Act, which restricts foreign-flagged shipping in U.S. waters, coupled with a delay in appointing an on-the-ground military commander to coordinate relief and a lag in dispatching a Navy hospital vessel, the Comfort.
On a San Juan street corner, a half dozen cab drivers awaiting fares debated the significance of Trump's visit.
"He needs to see the mountain areas" where roads are still blocked and towns cut off, said Frankie Perez, 52. The others agreed. "He's not going to the bad areas," said Giovanni Maisonet, 39.
But Perez, whose own home was left darkened and sweltering by the power cutoff, was impressed that Trump had come at all, especially given the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed at least 59 people.
"We're struggling," he said. "I'm for the military here — they're doing a lot of good. But we need light. We're part of the U.S."
(Staff writers Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Juan and King from Washington.)