'Put people above debt,' Puerto Rico official urges amid Maria's devastation

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 26 (Reuters) - San Juan's mayor urged the United States on Tuesday to prioritize "people above debt" as it helps rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, after President Donald Trump said that the island's crippling debt "must be dealt with."

Maria slammed into the U.S. territory of 3.4 million people last week as the most powerful hurricane to Puerto Rico in almost 90 years, destroying homes and infrastructure, including knocking out power across the island. Puerto Rico, which has struggled for years economically, filed the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history earlier this year.

SEE ALSO: Trump says he will visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday, promises to help

"You don't put debt above people, you put people above debt," San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told CNN in an interview. "There is a moral imperative ... When someone is in need, when someone is in dire need, when someone is in a life or death situation, there is a human, moral imperative to deal with that situation before dealing with anything else."

She spoke a day after Trump said the island's $72 billion in debt needs to be addressed.

20 PHOTOS
Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Irma Maldanado stands with Sussury her parrot and her dog in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A car is viewed stuck in a flooded street in Santurce, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico braced for potentially calamitous flash flooding on Thursday after being pummeled by Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and knocked out the entire electricity grid. The hurricane, which Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called 'the most devastating storm in a century,' had battered the island of 3.4 million people after roaring ashore early Wednesday with deadly winds and heavy rain. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Fishing boats with severe damage at Club Nautico in the San Juan Bay. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Men walk past damaged homes after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017. Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on, cutting power on most of the US territory as terrified residents hunkered down in the face of the island's worst storm in living memory. After leaving a deadly trail of destruction on a string of smaller Caribbean islands, Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico's southeast coast around daybreak, packing winds of around 150mph (240kph). / AFP PHOTO / Hector RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: A local shop sustained damages after Hurricane Maria at Ponce de Leon Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A man looks for valuables in the damaged house of a relative after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man walks close to damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Agapito Lopez looks at the damage in his house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
TOPSHOT - A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 24, 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Maria. Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed on September 23, 2017 to evacuate people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment after the window was blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment with the window blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area last week on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An aerial photo shows damage caused by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. REUTERS/DroneBase
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"Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble," Trump said in a series of Twitter posts on Monday. "It's (sic) old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with."

Puerto Rico's government asked a judge on Monday for up to four extra weeks to meet key deadlines in its bankruptcy case.

Many structures on the island, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded, with clean drinking water hard to find in some areas. Few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.

16 PHOTOS
Puerto Rico in darkness
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Puerto Rico in darkness
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: San Juan is seen during a blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017 in Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 23: Jaime Degraff sits outside as he tries to stay cool as people wait for the damaged electrical grid to be fixed after Hurricane Maria passed through the area on September 23, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A police car patrols a dark street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico battled dangerous floods Friday after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called Maria the most devastating storm in a century after it destroyed the US territory's electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan Puerto Rico, late on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico has been battling dangerous floods after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A police car patrols a road as Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico in Fajardo, on September 20, 2017. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: Buildings are completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: San Juan is seen during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm on September 20, 2017 San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely impacted. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has announced a curfew, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., effective Wednesday through Saturday. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Satellite night images of #PuertoRico. #HurricaneMaria knocked out power grid, millions without electricity. More @… https://t.co/YACDm1nDtE
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: A building is dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: The Miramar neighborhood is completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: Buildings in San Juan are completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
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Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has called for federal aid to flow quickly to the island.

"Given Puerto Rico's fragile economic recovery prior to the storms, we ask the Trump Administration and U.S. Congress to take swift action to help Puerto Rico rebuild," Rossello said in a statement on Monday.

Critics have said the Trump administration is not acting fast enough, with some saying that although Puerto Rico is not a state, its people are U.S. citizens and should be treated fairly. The island is a U.S. commonwealth and its inhabitants do not have a vote in presidential elections or full representation in Congress.

Among those critics is singer Marc Anthony, whose family is from Puerto Rico. In a strongly-worded Twitter post on Monday, Anthony said Trump should stop dwelling on a controversy involving National Football League players and the national anthem and, "Do something about our people in need in #PuertoRico. We are American citizens too."

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders denied the administration had been slow to respond, telling reporters on Monday the administration was engaged in fact-finding to assess how much help was needed.

"The federal response has been anything but slow," she said at a daily briefing. "In fact, there's been an unprecedented push through of billions of dollars in federal assistance that the administration has fought for."

The storm has posed a major challenge for the island's electricity utility, PREPA, which declared bankruptcy in July after accumulating a $9 billion debt and years of underinvestment.

Six days after the storm hit, officials were still taking stock of what was expected to be a months-long effort to rebuild the power system, meaning many people will be without electricity for an extended period.

Rossello has imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew following the storm.

Maria was located about 190 miles (305 km) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at 8 a.m. ET (1200 GMT) Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (120 kph), the National Hurricane Center said. It was expected to lose force and become a tropical storm over the next day as it headed north in the Atlantic Ocean.

Forecast tracks showed it headed away from the U.S. mainland over the next few days. (Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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