Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson expressed surprise at the disaster recovery progress made in Puerto Rico after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria this fall.
"You know, interestingly enough from the reports that I had gotten, I had no idea that we had moved this far along," Carson told staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Joint Field Operations Center near San Juan, according to CNN.
He expressed similar sentiments later during a smaller meeting with officials from FEMA, HUD, and the Department of Homeland Security.
"I'm extremely impressed with the progress that's been made. It's better than what I had heard previously," Carson said. "And when I see the look in people's eyes ... it makes me even more determined to be with you to the very end."
Carson was accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and several other federal officials who oversee disaster response as part of a one-day trip.
Although they had meetings with various officials, they were not given a tour of the island and did not visit areas outside of San Juan that were hit hardest by the hurricanes, according to CNN.
Carson vowed that HUD would stay committed to assist Puerto Ricans as response transitions completely into recovery, during which the agency will distribute Community Block Development Grants for Disaster Recovery. HUD is awaiting an assessment from FEMA regarding the status of the island so it can allocate a total amount for the grants and provide direction for how the grants should be spent.
"We are in this for the long haul," Carson told a group of local officials. "Early on, you'll see a lot of FEMA, but in the long haul, you'll see a lot of HUD. And we're going to be with you for the long haul. It's going to be very difficult, but I've been so impressed but what I've seen already."
Hurricane Maria swept through the Caribbean in September and made landfall over Puerto Rico, causing massive power and communications outages throughout the island.
Although an official at the Energy Department said nearly 70 percent of power generation capacity appears to have been restored, local officials have pushed back on that number and claim it doesn’t account for the number of homes that are receiving power, given that infrastructure is still damaged.