VP Mike Pence tours islands wrecked by Hurricane Maria

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Below him, upended boats. Above his head, a blown-off roof.

From high above and on the ground, Vice President Mike Pence took in the devastation Friday that Hurricane Maria has brought to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He offered assurances that better days were ahead — and that the federal government would help hasten them.

"The devastation here is overwhelming but the resilience of the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands is even greater," Pence said after visiting a Red Cross outpost on St. Croix where hundreds had taken shelter. "We're going to keep the help coming."

Pence, wearing short sleeves and cowboy boots, spoke to residents from the altar of a church with gaping holes in the roof. On an aerial tour of the Virgin Islands, he saw upended boats along the coast, blue tarps atop damaged homes and uprooted trees and vegetation.

The vice president said he came bearing a message from President Donald Trump: "We will be with you every day until the Virgin Islands comes all the way back." It was a message he repeated a few hours later for residents of Puerto Rico.

Trump himself had been to Puerto Rico just days earlier, but difficult logistics had kept him from the Virgin Islands.

Where Pence dispensed reassurances and hugs on his visit, the president had delivered a more uneven message. Trump spoke at length in self-congratulatory tones about the strength of the federal recovery effort and made light of how costly Puerto Rico's troubles were to the federal budget. He compared the island's lower death toll to the "real catastrophe" of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when more than 1,800 people died.

Pence, for his part, said there had been "steady progress" on opening roads and addressing other challenges, but acknowledged "we have a long way to go."

"The people of Puerto Rico can be assured that we will be with you every step of the way," he said.

Pence told locals in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan that "the hearts of the American people have been breaking" for those in the islands.

"We will get through this and we will get through this together for everyone," he said, adding that the federal government would be there "until you can say, 'Puerto Rico se levanta,' Puerto Rico is rising."

Priest Willie Pena also spoke of the resiliency of the people, explaining to Pence that he tells those who talk about still being in the dark, "We do not have electricity but we do have light."

On St. Croix, construction worker Jose Sanchez, 33, said Pence's visit "builds morale. It gives us hope."

As for the impact of Maria, Sanchez said: "It was a whipping that we received. It is something that people are never going to forget, like Katrina."

Kenneth E. Mapp, governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, said the federal government had hurricane response efforts "down to a science."

"There is no country that responds to disasters like the United States of America," he said, adding that the island is making progress in its recovery and expects schools to reopen Tuesday.