SAN JUAN – You might recognize the name of Carmen Yulin Cruz, the San Juan mayor who repeatedly sparred with President Donald Trump after Hurricane Maria destroyed complete towns in Puerto Rico four months ago.
In the aftermath, she took to the airwaves to describe a “life or death” situation on the island and to decry FEMA’s response. Trump became very critical of her, tweeting about her “poor leadership.” Since then, she has found allies around the country, but especially in New York.
I sat down with the mayor in San Juan on Wednesday, to discuss what Puerto Rico still needs, why she calls our mayor “Bill,” and how New York was there from the beginning.
On a particular moment that stood out from the days after the storm:
“There were three people drinking off a creek in a town called Comerio and this child…his grandmother had him sort of held to one side on her hip, and we gave them a bottle of water, and the child realized…it was cold when he touched it. And the desperation in the child’s face, just trying to grab on and touch the bottle, it just showed me that there was a lot of need. And I’ve said this many times and still: [Storms] Irma and Maria were devastating for Puerto Rico. The botched effort of the Trump administration has been at least as equally devastating.”
On interactions with Trump since his Twitter comments:
“He shook my hand, and he said, ‘Oh you.’ And I said, ‘It’s not about politics Mr. President, it’s about saving lives.’”
That was…before he threw paper towels at us.”
On her decision to criticize the federal government, as opposed to the early reticence shown by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello:
“The governor decided that he was gonna play nice with President Trump basically because he thought, ‘Well if I stay quiet, maybe he will help.’ . . . And what basically happened was it gave President Trump the opportunity to look the other way.
So now the governor is saying, ‘Well, we didn’t get everything we needed.’ Well, you know, I’m with him. We all knew that from the beginning.”
On her relationship with New York:
“I sum it up in this: I used to love New York. Now I adore New York.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito were outstanding…From the second week [after the storm] until December, eight teams of New York [City] Emergency Management people came to San Juan, just to San Juan, and helped us set up our distribution system. They helped us navigate the very difficult and bureaucratic FEMA-land, which we’re still navigating…They even helped us with opening our, what we call our Central Park, which is Parque Luis Muñoz Marin. They actually sent tree specialists.”
On de Blasio saying that NYC couldn’t provide housing for displaced Puerto Ricans:
“From what I heard and read, that wasn’t what he said. What he said had somewhat of a concerned undertone, not a rejection undertone. [Asking,] does it make sense for people to go from a shelter here to a shelter somewhere else? Probably not. So, what I heard Mayor de Blasio said, and I call him Bill, is let’s make sure that the people that come here are well taken care of. Let’s make sure that the living conditions are good living conditions.”
On what New Yorkers can do for Puerto Rico:
“Well first of all, New Yorkers have done a lot…The satellite phone that I got first, this gentleman… from the Emergency Management office said, ‘Mayor Cruz, this is from New York.’ And it was the first chance we had to communicate.
It was New York, it was Chicago, Miami-Dade, and now the people that have moved from Puerto Rico to New York specifically, they have a center where people go to get help, even go to get coats. And I was very touched by that because they aren’t old clothes, they aren’t discarded coats. They are coats that still have their tags on and that’s a very dignified way of helping those who have had to leave their environment.
A couple of things [to help]: make sure that Congress doesn’t forget us. Make sure that you retweet, even this interview just keep at it and ensure that [you]…don’t believe what most of the members of the Trump administration are saying: ‘Everything is OK.’ Everything is not OK…1.5 million of us still don’t have energy…Children are still going to school half a day. Our economy is still shattered. And don’t forget us. Don’t forget us.
There’s lots of foundations that you can give your money to. We have a municipal foundation called somebodyhelpus.org.
And come to visit us. Take a cruise, take a plane, come down here and support us. And make sure that you take a little video and show people that we are resilient, we are fighting, and that Maria and Irma may have tried and put us down, but they just made us dizzy for a little while. We’re coming back and we’re coming back strong.”