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Trump lashes out at Puerto Rico as House weighs aid package

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump lashed out at hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico on Thursday, insisting in tweets that the federal government can’t keep sending help “forever” and suggesting the U.S. territory was to blame for its financial struggles.

His broadsides triggered an outcry from Democrats in Washington and officials on the island, which has been reeling since Hurricane Maria struck three weeks ago, leaving death and destruction in an unparalleled humanitarian crisis.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, with whom Trump has had a running war of words, tweeted that the president’s comments were “unbecoming” to a commander in chief and “seem more to come from a ‘Hater in Chief.’”

“Mr. President, you seem to want to disregard the moral imperative that your administration has been unable to fulfill,” the mayor said in a statement.

The debate played out as the House passed, on a sweeping 353-69 vote, a $36.5 billion disaster aid package that includes assistance for Puerto Rico’s financially-strapped government. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the government needs to ensure that Puerto Rico can “begin to stand on its own two feet” and said the U.S. has “got to do more to help Puerto Rico rebuild its own economy.”

Ryan, the House speaker who represents Racine County in Congress, planned to visit Puerto Rico on Friday. He has promised that the island will get what it needs.

Forty-five deaths in Puerto Rico have been blamed on Maria, about 85 percent of Puerto Rico residents still lack electricity and the government says it hopes to have electricity restored completely by March.

Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the island last week to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the island’s recovery. But Trump’s tweets Thursday raised questions about whether the U.S. would remain there for the long haul. He tweeted, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

In a series of tweets, the president added, “electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.” He blamed Puerto Rico for its looming financial crisis and “a total lack of accountability.”

The tweets conflicted with Trump’s past statements on Puerto Rico. During an event last week honoring the heritage of Hispanics, for example, the president said, “We will be there all the time to help Puerto Rico recover, restore, rebuild.”

White House chief of staff John Kelly, speaking to reporters, said the military and other emergency responders were trying very hard to “work themselves out of a job.” Reassuring the island, Kelly said the U.S. will “stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done.”

At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. told reporters “there’s still plenty of work to be done” by the military troops in Puerto Rico. He said there was no current plan to withdraw troops who are supporting FEMA’s recovery efforts. McKenzie, director of the military’s Joint Staff, said it will be up to FEMA and other civilian agencies to decide when the military is no longer needed there.Democrats said Trump’s tweets were deplorable, given that the 3 million-plus U.S. citizens on Puerto Rico are confronting the kind of hardships that would draw howls of outrage if they affected a state. One-third of the island lacks clean running water and just 8 percent of its roads are passable, according to government statistics.“It is shameful that President Trump is threatening to abandon these Americans when they most need the federal government’s help,” said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat.

After years of economic challenges, Puerto Rico was already in the process of restructuring much of its $74 billion in debt before the hurricane struck. The financial situation is more complicated than Trump’s tweets suggest.

Puerto Rico lost population and jobs after Congress eliminated special tax breaks in 2006, making it more difficult to repay its debts. Yet lenders continued to extend credit to Puerto Rico despite its economic struggles, while pension costs strained Puerto Rico’s government and its infrastructure deteriorated.

The legislative aid package totals $36.5 billion and sticks close to a White House request. For now, it ignores huge demands from the powerful Florida and Texas delegations, which together pressed for some $40 billion more.

A steady series of disasters could put 2017 on track to rival Hurricane Katrina and other 2005 storms as the most costly set of disasters ever. Katrina required about $110 billion in emergency appropriations.

The bill combines $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency with $16 billion to permit the financially troubled federal flood insurance program pay an influx of Harvey-related claims. An additional $577 million would pay for western firefighting efforts.

Up to $5 billion of the FEMA money could be used to help local governments remain functional as they endure unsustainable cash shortfalls in the aftermath of Maria, which has choked off revenues and strained resources.

Top Indian court rules sex with wife younger than 18 is rape

NEW DELHI — India’s top court has ruled that having sexual intercourse with a wife younger than 18 is rape, a decision that activists say is an important step toward ending child marriages.

Indian law says a woman must be at least 18 to marry and consent to sex, but there are exceptions and a man was permitted to have sex, even forcibly, with a girl as young as 15, as long as she was his wife.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 18 is rape. “Human rights of a girl child are very much alive and kicking whether she is married or not and deserve recognition and acceptance,” said Justices Madan Lokur and Deepak Gupta.

Marriages of girls are prevalent in India, especially among the rural poor. The government estimates that child marriages in rural areas were three times higher than in urban centers.

On Thursday, sociologist Ranjana Kumari welcomed the court verdict and said it had removed a conflicting position in Indian laws. She said according to the 2011 government census the percentage of below 18 marriages in India was as high as 47 percent.

Lalitha Kumaramangalam , former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, said the ruling “will act as a deterrent to parents.”

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said the court decision would help ending the practice of early marriages.

She also called for a free access to secondary education for girls. “Also parents often say they don’t like to send their daughters to school, and get them married, to protect them from sexual abuse. India has enacted a law against child sex abuse, but should do much more to enforce the protections,” she said.

India’s Parliament raised the age of consent to 18 years in 2013, but no change was made in a legal exception. It said if a married girl was over 15 years of age, her husband could not be charged with any offense.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said “sexual intercourse with a girl below 18 years of age is rape regardless of whether she is married or not.”

Napa wine industry assesses damage to wineries and grape crop

NAPA, Calif. — As the wildfires that have ravaged Napa since Sunday night continued to burn Wednesday, a tally of the destruction wrought on the local wine industry grew.

Two of the three farmworker housing centers in the valley had been evacuated, while the status of one center located on Silverado Trail near several damaged wineries remained unknown.

The Napa Valley Vintners trade group added to the number of member wineries that have been damaged, bringing the total on Wednesday morning to five physical wineries that had suffered total or very significant losses. The group had received responses from at least 120 of its more than 500 members, but had yet to hear from “about a dozen” of its members in the most at-risk areas near the Atlas Peak, Tubbs and Partrick fires.

Of those who had responded to the group, 11 had reported damage to their vineyards, wineries or other buildings on their properties.

A complete roster of those affected was not immediately available, but vintners and wineries in at-risk areas continued to take to social media with updates. Others recounted having to evacuate their homes, like many of the county’s residents.

Mayacamas Vineyards wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon that “the winery is safe so far, but we have serious concerns about two wildfires to our West.”

A representative of Segassia Vineyard on Mount Veeder Road reported Wednesday via email that the property’s team had been evacuated and was safe, “but the fruit remains to dehydrate on the vines, during prime harvest season. Right now, what has not been destroyed will be lost.”

Vintner Tim Mondavi spoke from San Francisco, having been evacuated from his home on Silverado Trail. Continuum, his winery in east Napa, is standing and running on back-up power from a generator, he said.

Continuum had brought in about two-thirds of their harvested grapes when the fire broke out, and he hopes to be able to get the remaining one-third in “as soon as possible, if it is possible.”