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The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (C), conducts an underway replenishment with the dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS William McLean (L), and the fast combat support ship USNS Supply (R) to support those affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in the Atlantic Ocean on October 1, 2017. Picture taken on October 1, 2017. Courtesy Ernest R. Scott/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.(reuters_tickers)
By Robin Respaut and Gabriel Stargardter
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - President Donald Trump is set to make his first visit to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory, and is likely to face more criticism of his handling of the disaster as the vast majority of inhabitants lack power and phone service and are scrambling for food, clean water and fuel.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz led the attack on the administration's response on Friday, criticizing an official's description of relief efforts as a "good news story" and urging Trump to act more decisively. Trump fired back at Cruz on Twitter, accusing her of "poor leadership."
It is not clear if the two will meet during Trump's visit.
"She (Cruz) has been invited to participate in the events tomorrow, and we hope those conversations will happen and that we can all work together to move forward," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on Monday.
Trump will spend "significant time" on the island. He is due in Las Vegas on Wednesday to meet with people affected by Sunday's mass shooting.
For 72-year-old Angel Negroni of Juana Matos, the situation has begun to improve as flood waters receded from his neighbourhood, located 20 minutes from San Juan.
Locals could occasionally get spotty cellular service, an improvement from the communication vacuum of days earlier. And he can trade his neighbourhood's restored municipal water for ice made by a friend's generator-powered freezer.
"It's better now," said Negroni, while standing on his covered porch on Monday, cooking fish on a propane-powered camping stove. "We're OK."
At least 5.4 percent of customers in Puerto Rico had their power restored by mid-morning on Monday, according to the U.S. Energy Department, with San Juan's airport and marine terminal and several hospitals back on the power grid. It said the head of Puerto Rico's power utility expects 15 percent of electricity customers to have power restored within the next two weeks.
Mobile phone service is still elusive. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission said on Monday 88.3 percent of cellphone sites - which transmit signals to create a cellular network - were out of service, virtually unchanged from 88.8 percent on Sunday.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long on a trip to the island on Monday said things were improving with traffic moving and businesses reopening.
"I didn't see anybody in a life-threatening situation at all," he told reporters. "We have a long way to go in recovery," adding that rebuilding Puerto Rico is "going to be a Herculean effort."
Nearly two weeks after the fiercest hurricane to hit the island in 90 years, everyday life was still severely curtailed by the destruction. The ramping up of fuel supplies should allow more Puerto Ricans to operate generators and travel more freely.
"We've been increasing the number of gas stations that are open," Governor Ricardo Rossello said at a news briefing, with more than 720 of the island's 1,100 gas stations now up and running.
Puerto Rico relies on fuel supplies shipped from the mainland United States and distribution has been disrupted by the bad state of roads.
Within the next couple of days, Rossello expects 500,000 barrels of diesel and close to 1 million barrels of gasoline to arrive on the island. All of Puerto Rico's primary ports have reopened but many still have restrictions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
At least four tankers carrying fuel are waiting to unload with two more on the way, according to Thomson Reuters shipping data.
"The flow is coming, gasoline is getting here," Rossello said. "We have been able to reduce the time that it takes to get gasoline and diesel at different stations."
Federal and local authorities were working together to keep 50 hospitals operational and Rossello said the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort would arrive in Puerto Rico between Tuesday and Wednesday.
RUNNING OUT OF CASH
As it tries to get back on its feet, Puerto Rico is in danger of running out of cash in a matter of weeks because the economy has come to a halt in the hurricane’s aftermath, Rossello told the local El Nuevo Dia newspaper in an interview published on Monday.
After filing for the largest U.S. local government bankruptcy on record in May, Puerto Rico owes about $72 billion to creditors and another $45 billion or so in pension benefits to retired workers.
What little cash it has is now being diverted to emergency response while it works to secure aid from the federal government. The grinding halt to the economy will delay a fiscal recovery plan and negotiations with creditors.
"There is no cash on hand. We have made a huge effort to get $2 billion in cash," Rossello said in the interview. "But let me tell you what $2 billion means when you have zero collection: it's basically a month government’s payroll, a little bit more."
Trump's administration is preparing to ask Congress for $13 billion (9.79 billion pounds) in aid for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by natural disasters, congressional sources said. The island's recovery will likely cost more than $30 billion.
(Reporting by Robin Respaut, Gabriel Stargardter; additional reporting by Nicholas Brown and Carlos Barria in SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico; Doina Chiacu, Roberta Rampton, Tim Ahmann and Makini Brice in WASHINGTON; Marianna Parraga in HOUSTON; Rodrigo Campos and Herb Lash in NEW YORK and Esha Vaish in BENGALURU; Writing by Bill Rigby and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Bill Trott and Mary Milliken)