In Puerto Rico, Paul Ryan says government is committed "for the long haul"

Last Updated Oct 13, 2017 6:59 PM EDT

The U.S. government is committed to Puerto Rico for the "long haul," Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said Friday as he visited the island wrecked by Hurricane Maria.

The Wisconsin Republican's comments come after President Trump earlier this week tweeted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), military and first responders cannot remain in Puerto Rico "forever," even as the vast majority of the territory goes without power and many residents lack clean drinking water. The Trump administration has been criticized for a perceived slow response to the storm, even as Mr. Trump has declared that response a success. Ryan said "we are all in this ... for the long haul, to make sure that this island survives."

"It makes no sense to put temporary patches on problems that have long-term effects," Ryan said in San Juan Friday. "... We do believe there is a very important, proper role at all levels of government to respond to this now, in the mean time, for the immediate term and for the long haul."

Ryan's visit comes a day after the House passed a $36.5 billion emergency relief package, including nearly $5 billion in loans for Puerto Rico. Ryan led a congressional delegation to Puerto Rico to survey the damage and see the disaster relief efforts, CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reports from Puerto Rico. 

"Acre after acre of destruction is what Speaker Paul Ryan would have seen as he flew over the island," Begnaud reports. 

Critics say aid was slow in coming to Puerto Rico, and there still isn't enough, Begnaud reports. Roughly 36 percent of the population still lacks clean drinking water, and almost half have no communication. Three weeks later, 91 percent of the island is still without electricity. And four deaths on the island this week from contaminated water has spread fear.

On Friday, Mr. Trump softened his stance, saying the U.S. is going to "help" Puerto Rico.

"We've done a great job. We've done a great job in Puerto Rico," Mr. Trump told reporters Friday afternoon. "Puerto Rico has to get the infrastructure going. We're helping them with their infrastructure."

"But most important on Puerto Rico is their electric plants are essentially gone," Mr. Trump added. "Now, they were gone before the hurricane; they were in bankruptcy, they owed $9 billion -- I think it was $9 billion. But the plants, as you know, were -- the electric was a disaster. After the storm, even more so. We have to help them get the plants rebuilt. That's a long-term project, unfortunately. But we have to help them."

"But I love the people of Puerto Rico, and we're going to help them," the president said.

Mr. Trump has made a point of highlighting Puerto Rico's debt and inability to respond to the storm without federal aid.

"Ultimately, the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort -- it will end up being one of the biggest ever — will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island," Mr. Trump said in a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers last month.

CBS News' Alan He contributed to this report.

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.