President Donald Trump made a statement on September 26 that he will visit the “literally destroyed” island of Puerto Rico the following Tuesday. His delayed response drew criticism from both sides of the aisle, according to the New York Times. In Hurricane Maria’s wake, more than 3 million Americans now suffer without electricity or adequate food or water, Slate reported. At least 80% of the island’s agriculture was destroyed, eliminating a source of food as well as a chunk of the island’s economy. In addition, 95% of cellphone towers on Puerto Rico toppled, depriving locals of a way to ask for help — wand crippling government response, too.
The day before Trump finally spoke on it, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo A. Rosello said the territory stands on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Nearly a week after Hurricane Maria made landfall, Rosello called on Congress for help.
Puerto Rico’s governor calls for equal treatment
The governor asked for the same amount and type of aid the president provides for any state affected by such a disaster. “Recognize that we Puerto Ricans are American citizens,” he said. “When we speak of a catastrophe, everyone must be treated equally.”
He noted that, if Puerto Rico does not get help soon, it could cause a “mass exodus” to the mainland. Congressional leaders said they have to wait for damage assessments before they act. They also need a formal disaster request from the Trump administration, which may not come until early to mid-October.
Trump’s early response sounds awfully close to blaming the victim.
President tweets criticism of Puerto Rico after disaster
Over the weekend, as Puerto Rico’s lack of food, fuel, and water threatened disaster, Trump remained silent. Instead, he sent 17 tweets about sports. That included the police brutality protests during the National Anthem Trump revived, and un-inviting Stephen Curry to the White House.
When he finally did speak out about Puerto Rico, he focused on the negative. “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he tweeted. “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. Food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well.”
After the president’s formal statement, he praised his own response to the disasters in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida. He called them “really good,” “amazing,” and “tremendous.” The nicest thing he had to say about Puerto Rico focused more on himself, saying the governor of Puerto Rico treated him “really very, very nicely.”
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz criticized Trump for focusing on the island’s financial woes in his tweets.
“You don’t put debt above people; you put people above debt,” she told CNN.
He did take a breather during his victory lap to explain why he had not yet visited the territory.
‘We can’t just drive our trucks there,’ Trump says of island
CNN reported that, when asked why he spent the weekend sparring with the NFL instead of getting aid to Puerto Rico, Trump stated the obvious.
“It’s very tough because it’s an island. In Texas, we can ship the trucks right out there. … We’ve got A-pluses on Texas and Florida and we will also on Puerto Rico, but the difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean … and I think we’re doing a really good job,” he said during his comments.
Those statements comments continue to draw skepticism, even from those familiar with disaster response. “I just question the victory laps that the president is taking already,” said Lars Anderson. He worked as a senior Federal Emergency Management Agency official in President Barack Obama’s administration, and now runs a crisis communications firm called BlueDot Strategies. “I’m glad to see that the White House is actually acknowledging the situation there,” he told Reuters.
For a nice change, officials in the know backed him up, at least on the logistical challenges.
Coast Guard projects Puerto Rico situation might get worse
Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, told The Washington Post that, the island does pose logistical challenges. Because of the inability to reach the islands except by air or sea, the situation is “much worse than Harvey, much worse than Irma.” He said he understands why people feel forgotten. “They feel isolated, and they’re probably getting a sense of betrayal, of well, ‘Where is the cavalry?’ ” Zukunft said. Residents’ sense of abandonment makes sense to him, and might get worse before it gets better.
Ken Buell, director of emergency response and recovery for the Department of Energy, said the “catastrophically damaged” electrical grid impeded relief efforts. It has a domino effect on other services as well, including sewer and water. Buell explained that power generating stations, which largely sit on the south side of the island, fared better during the hurricane. That said, only the underground lines remain functioning on the transmission system, and the distribution system — carrying power to homes and businesses — went 100% down. He estimated repairs will cost “billions of dollars.”
Trump’s statements on the disaster and how FEMA actually handles it don’t exactly match.
The Trump administration bafflingly continues to block some forms of aid
U.S. officials stressed that the federal disaster system kicked into gear days ago to provide food, water, and rolled sheeting for shelter. The U.S. military increased its flights bearing emergency aid to 10 per hour, an official told Reuters. Despite Trump’s self-described “excellent response,” his administration actually blocked some aspects of aid. The Trump administration denied a request to waive shipping restrictions to help get fuel and supplies to Puerto Rico, saying it would do nothing to address the island’s damaged ports.
The Jones Act limits shipping between coasts to U.S. flagged vessels. However, when storms like Maria strike, the government occasionally issues temporary waivers to allow the use of cheaper, tax-free, or more readily available foreign-flagged ships. The Department of Homeland Security, which waived the act after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, did not agree an exemption would help this time. Gregory Moore, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said that his agency’s assessment showed “sufficient capacity” aboard U.S. vessels to move supplies to Puerto Rico. Officials from the island territory disagree.
“Our dependence on fossil fuel imports by sea [hampers] the restoration of services,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, an energy expert at the nonprofit group the Union of Concerned Scientists. The refusal to allow the waiver “is raising fears on the island that they are going to be left behind in this disaster.”
Shipping supplies aren’t the only issue with hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.
FEMA still working with Harvey aid
Within hours of the storm passing, FEMA opened an “air bridge” using military aircraft to bring support personnel and equipment to Puerto Rico. Since then, FEMA brought in more troops, including parts of an Army electrical power unit. Northern Command, the Pentagon headquarters responsible for this operation, deployed a handful of aircraft to conduct recovery operations.
That includes an Army medical company of roughly 150 troops and amphibious ships with Marines on board. All told, roughly 10,000 troops have shipped off to Puerto Rico, focused primarily on medical evacuation and delivery of supplies. In the days since the storm, FEMA has distributed more than 1.5 million meals and 1.1 million liters of water to Americans affected by the storms, with more staged for future deliveries.
Experts say the island needs more — much more. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress is working with the administration to make sure Puerto Rico gets all of the help it needs, the Associated Press reported. Lawmakers approved $15 billion in hurricane relief in the wake of Harvey, but Puerto Rico relief agents project needing tens of billions of dollars more in the weeks and months ahead. Congress seems poised to approve it, but the Trump administration has to first request that funding, which it already said it won’t do for weeks.
Lawmakers have harsh words for Trump on his response, so far.
Administration’s response has been ‘wholly inadequate’
Representative Adam Smith issued strong words for the administration’s disaster response in Puerto Rico, calling it “wholly inadequate.” “A territory of 3.5 million American citizens is almost completely without power, water, food, and telephone service … It’s a disgrace,” Smith said.
Senator Christopher Murphy, whose constituents represent a growing Puerto Rican population, also condemned the response. He said the economic crisis in Puerto Rico “has officially devolved into a humanitarian disaster.
“For decades, Washington has neglected our obligations to the island. We’ve denied Puerto Rico’s residents — American citizens — vital human services and adequate health care funding. There’s no doubt in my mind that our negligence made the devastation in Puerto Rico even worse,” Murphy said.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the island needs 1,000 to 1,500 additional security personnel, and at least another 200 generators, as well as fuel for them. He called on Trump to propose an aid package to Congress in the next day or two. “With all due respect, President Trump, relief efforts are not ‘doing well,'” Schumer said, nodding to Trump’s own statements on the issue.
That represents a far cry from what Trump calls a “tremendous” success. If he doesn’t issue aid requests soon, the situation will likely deteriorate even further.