Trump’s neglect of Puerto Rico is inexcusable
On the night of Tuesday, Sept. 19, the outer limits of a Category 5 hurricane larger in size than the land it would soon devastate, swept over Puerto Rico. In the following days, during a hurricane season more ferocious than we’ve seen in decades, Hurricane Maria washed over Puerto Rico for a period of over 24 hours, leaving destruction and chaos in its wake. Ricardo Rosselló, Governor of Puerto Rico, called Hurricane Maria the “worst hurricane in [the] modern history [of] Puerto Rico.”
The storm went far outside of the bounds of a “natural disaster”, and is now being regarded as a “catastrophic event,” wiping out entire infrastructure systems and destroying “most, if not all of the built environment.” Insurance companies on the ground in Puerto Rico estimate a total infrastructure recovery cost of over $85 billion. Within hours following the start of the storm, 900,000 people were displaced from their homes and 4,400 were living in shelters while persisting winds continued to devastate the country for over 30 hours. Currently, only 5.4 percent of citizens on the island have electricity, more than 3 million are without clean drinking water, and the death toll has more than doubled in the past several days, climbing from 16 people to 34.
To make matters worse, first responders in Puerto Rico were impacted in an unprecedented manner, being forced to abandon their jobs as public servants to take care of their own homes and families. This rendered many emergency services unavailable or ineffective. The Federal Government of the United States should have immediately stepped in, not only to assist in the humanitarian efforts to support citizens of Puerto Rico, but also to secure safety for the 3.5 million American citizens living on the island. But as we’ve seen, that wasn’t what happened — not even close.
Donald Trump initially responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria the way we all expected — via Twitter. Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico 18 times in 11 hours. They were not the “thoughts and prayers” tweets filled with empty promises and fake sympathy, either. They were defensive and dark, and they painted a picture of a heroic American government doing all they can to help a selfish, ungrateful Puerto Rico — which is false on all counts.
Trump repeatedly praised his own administration for their “unbelievable” and “incredible” job in aiding Puerto Rico after the storm, while simultaneously berating San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. Trump claimed in a tweet that Cruz has “such poor leadership ability” and that the lack of relief efforts were due to her inability to mobilize her community. This is an ironic statement, considering Trump had, until this point, done little to mobilize the federal government to send relief and aid, while Cruz had been seen wading through post-hurricane waters to rescue citizens of her city.
Trump’s tweets didn’t stop there — nor did his relief efforts begin. He went on to make claims against the “fake news” of CNN and NBC, stating that they’re “going out of their way to disparage our great First Responders [sic].” These statements were largely untrue, with CNN and NBC both highlighting relief efforts and urging support for first responders. He also stated that “they want everything done for them,” suggesting that it wasn’t the government's job to aid in relief efforts. Trump’s choice of wording is very telling. “They” casts a tone of “others”, further evidence that Trump will use any event, even tragedy in the lives of our citizens and neighbors, to create a divide and treat those living in Puerto Rico as second-class citizens.
Trump's tweets weren’t the only thing wrong with his response to the aftermath. He proved time and time again that he has no grasp on the severity of the situation. Or worse, the severity of the situation means so little to him that it doesn’t behoove him to behave in a presidential manner. For example, it took Trump a week to waive the Jones Act, which was effectively preventing foreign aid from making its way to Puerto Rico. After the storm, Trump “issued an emergency declaration and pledged that all federal resources would be directed to help.” Unfortunately, for five days following this statement, Trump and top officials made no contact with Puerto Rico, leaving its citizens with no water, no power, and no answers.
It likely won’t come as a surprise that Trump spent those days in his private golf club, speaking out publically only to discuss his new travel ban, making no real comments on any efforts to help the unfolding crisis situation. He did, however, manage to find time to discuss Kim Jong Un, the NFL, and his failed healthcare bill. The administration's lack of motivation is perfectly captured in a statement from Rep. Darren Soto (D) stating that “[The American Government] invaded small countries faster than we’ve been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico.”
When Trump finally started to address relief efforts, he made claims that efforts to provide water and medical care were “going well,” while first-person accounts confirm that these claims were fabricated. Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan told reporters that “there were not enough people or assets to help Puerto Rico combat what has become a humanitarian crisis.”
Trump eventually made it to Puerto Rico, less on his own volition and more as a defensive response to outrage and pressure from officials and citizens. Many had hoped that seeing the devastation with his own eyes would prompt Trump to start taking this situation seriously. However, his actions at a small press conference in a church in Puerto Rico made it clear that Trump was taking virtually no aspects of the relief efforts seriously. He tossed paper towel rolls and other supplies into the audience like band members throw t-shirts into a crowd at a concert.
These immature actions followed shocking statements by Trump, claiming that Hurricane Maria was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, the storm that made landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2005. He said the people of Puerto Rico should be “very proud” that they only lost 16 lives — although the death toll rose to 34 in the following days — compared to the “literally thousands of people” lost to Katrina. Hurricane Katrina, whose death toll was about 1,800, undoubtably took more lives than Hurricane Maria. However, no human life should be minimized or used merely as a statistic to justify our government’s overwhelmingly poor response to this tragedy. Trump went on to assert that Puerto Rico was throwing America’s budget “a little out of whack,” despite never once complaining about the cost of Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma relief efforts. His entire speech had an overarching tone of victim-blaming and divisiveness, making little mention of any actual goals of relief efforts for the country.
The Trump administration must acknowledge their responsibility to secure the safety and wellbeing of the people living on the island. The lack of urgency by our government is irresponsible; the people of Puerto Rico deserve the food, water, and medical aid that the American government has promised them. It is callous, irresponsible, and disturbing that Trump has used a tragedy to once again turn to Twitter, play victim, and cry “fake news,” rather than leaving politics at home and fighting the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Puerto Rico deserves the same mobilized response that was given to Texas and Florida in the wake of Harvey and Irma. Puerto Rico deserves more than the callous relief efforts sent only to save face. It’s time for President Trump to step up to the plate.