US President Donald Trump faced growing calls for a large-scale military relief effort in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico amid a backlash over his administration's response.

More than a week after the US territory of 3.5 million people was devastated by Hurricane Maria the vast majority of the island was still without power and many people had no access to drinking water.

Around 10,000 shipping containers full of aid are reported to have been left languishing at the port in the capital San Juan for days amid red tape, disagreements over how it should be distributed, and a lack of drivers.

A Roberto Clemente State Park employee re-stacks cases of bottled water on a pallet after they were donated for the Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort for Puerto Rico. Photo / AP
A Roberto Clemente State Park employee re-stacks cases of bottled water on a pallet after they were donated for the Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort for Puerto Rico. Photo / AP

This was disputed by Tom Bossert, Trump's homeland security adviser.

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As criticism grew, a three-star general was yesterday appointed to bolster the relief efforts.

Lieutenant-General Jeffrey Buchanan was expected to arrive on the ravaged island yesterday afternoon.

He will work alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the island.

A veteran who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, his task will be to accelerate the distribution of relief supplies across the island.

San Juan airport was gradually opening to commercial flights, with some of the first Puerto Ricans returning to survey the damage.

As the plane circled low over the capital, with its flattened palm trees and roofless houses, passengers peered nervously out the window.

They whooped and cheered as the plane - its cargo hold filled with bottles of water, the steward said - landed.

Inside the airport exhausted families and pensioners in wheelchairs and with tubes in their noses, crowded the departure lounge hoping to get out.

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Juana Matos resident Hector Rosa walks through a flooded area after the passing of Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico. Photo / AP
Juana Matos resident Hector Rosa walks through a flooded area after the passing of Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico. Photo / AP

Gilberto Rodriguez, a 42 year old owner of a sign company from Dallas, had returned to persuade his father to leave.

"He rode it out, and now he's pretty shaken," he said.

Their home, near Yunque, had been badly hit; his father's neighbours were taking matters into their own hands and using machetes to try and clear the roads.

Rodriguez had brought in a chainsaw, taken apart so as not to fall foul of airline restrictions.

"I want him to come back to mine, rest a few weeks, and then we can rebuild together," he said.

"And who knows - maybe now the island will finally fix all its problems?"

Defending the response of his civilian Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mr Trump said on Twitter: "The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot. Large numbers of generators are now on Island. Food and water on site."

After days of pressure, he also issued a 10-day waiver to the 1920 Jones Act, lifting with immediate effect restrictions which stopped non-US vessels from bringing aid to the US territory.