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Ex-FEMA chief rips Trump official for calling Puerto Rico ‘good news story’

A former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Friday blasted acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke's claim that Hurricane Maria relief efforts in Puerto Rico are "a good news story."

"That was a stupid thing for Elaine Duke to say," Michael Brown, who served as FEMA administrator from 2003 until his resignation in 2005 amid scrutiny over the agency's handling of Hurricane Katrina, said on CNBC.

"You're in the middle of a crisis, you have a humanitarian disaster. You don't talk about good news stories - you talk about what you're doing," the former Bush administration official added.

Still, Brown defended the Trump administration's response to Hurricane Maria, which came under fire this week from critics who accused officials of being slow to respond.

"I can guarantee you, based on all the reports that I've seen, everything that I've heard from everybody - both within the agency and other places - they're moving as rapidly as possible," he said. "But the logistical nightmare of getting through all of these things that you have to fix first before you can even get there, necessarily slows things down."

"I know that's frustrating to the victims, it's frustrating to the public and I can guarantee you it's frustrating to the FEMA administrator," he added.

Brown made a similar argument in an op-ed piece published by The Hill on Friday, in which he described the process of repairing infrastructure like ports and runways after a disaster in order to allow other assistance to be delivered.

"It's not a matter of government moving fast or slow, it's a matter of fact that assessments and repairs take time," he wrote. "On an island like Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, that time is expanded because of the limited accessibility - you only have ports and runways."

Brown, who had little experience in emergency management when he took the helm at FEMA in 2003, became the target of national outrage in 2005 that stemmed from the agency's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated swaths of Louisiana.

FEMA's slow response to the disaster under Brown's stewardship marked a particular low-point for the Bush administration. Brown resigned two weeks after the storm struck the Gulf Coast.

The former FEMA chief weighed in a day after President Trump's DHS head sparked backlash by telling reporters that the Trump administration's efforts to provide assistance to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico is a "good news story" as the administration works to defend its response to Maria.

"I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane," she said at the White House.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz lambasted the remark on Friday morning, telling CNN's "New Day" that Duke appeared to be making light of a "life-or-death story."

"Maybe from where she's standing, it's a good-news story. When you're drinking from a creek, it's not a good-news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good-news story," she said.

"Damn it, this is not a good-news story," she added. "This is a people-are-dying story."

Duke attempted to clarify her comments on Friday while speaking to reporters at the San Juan International Airport before boarding a helicopter to view the devastation.

"The end of my statement about good news was it was good news that the people of Puerto Rico, the many public servants of the U.S. and the government of Puerto Rico are working together," Duke said, adding, "it's nice to see the communities together trying to recover and support each other."

Updated: 3:13 p.m.