It’s been one week since Category 4 Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, destroying the entire island’s communications infrastructure, power grid, and leaving thousands homeless. The humanitarian crisis in the storm’s wake is growing by the hour.
Local officials on the island have been pleading for more help from the Trump administration, with San Juan’s mayor calling for layers of red tape to be eliminated in order to better distribute aid to inland areas that have effectively been cut off from the rest of the island.
“This is a big S.O.S for anybody out there,” Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night, “a plea for this help, which is right here, to get moving.”
Cruz said many rescuers on the ground were waiting for orders of where and how to respond.
“The red tape needs to be ripped off as if it were a band aid,” she said, “there are boots on the ground… but those boots need to start walking.”
While the federal government has been scaling up its response by dispatching Navy and Coast Guard vessels to the island, along with up to 3,000 troops and aircraft carrying food, water, and other supplies, help is not arriving fast enough.
Much of the aid that has been brought in has been stranded in ports or at the airport because delivery trucks don’t have any gas, and port infrastructure is in bad shape.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump gave himself high marks for his administration’s storm response, but the reality is that moving the island from crisis mode to a decade-long rebuilding phase is far more complicated than anything Trump has dealt with so far, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were also Category 4 storms at landfall in the U.S.
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in Washington on Sept. 26, 2017.
Trump being Trump
The optics of this storm don’t favor Trump. First, there’s the fact that he never mentioned Puerto Rico’s plight during the weekend, choosing instead to ignite a battle, via Twitter of course, with NFL players over their protests of police brutality and other issues.
Then when he finally did tweet about Puerto Rico, it was to remind Americans of what sorry shape the island was in prior to the storm, almost as if to absolve himself of the responsibility to save people’s lives.
Then his comments during the Tuesday press conference in the Rose Garden may turn out to be his “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” moment.
On a day when cable networks were broadcasting images of flooded streets, aerial shots of devastated homes, and desperate pleas for assistance from Puerto Rican officials, Trump insisted that he was receiving nothing but praise for his administration’s storm response.
Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
…It’s old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
“As [Puerto Rican] governor Rossello just told me this morning, the entire federal workforce is doing great work in Puerto Rico, and I appreciated his saying it, and he’s saying it to anybody that will listen,” Trump said.
“And he [Rossello] further went on, he said, ‘And through the Trump administration’s leadership, the relationship between FEMA and my team is very, very strong.'”
It wasn’t until Wednesday, six days after the storm struck, that he even tried to empathize with storm victims. Empathy, after all, isn’t something that this president excels at.
“I mean, that place was just destroyed,” Trump said. “That is a really tough situation. I feel so badly for the people.”
The current situation bears eerie similarities to George W. Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, which helped derail his second term. Like Trump, Bush appeared out of touch as the crisis grew, staying at his Texas Ranch during the storm, and then taking a now-infamous Air Force One flyby of a flooded American city. Trump, for his part, plans to visit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands next Tuesday, about 2 weeks after this humanitarian crisis began.
As with Puerto Rico, there was a racial component to Katrina as well, with majority black neighborhoods hardest hit by the flooding. Trump, who spent the weekend disparaging black members of the NFL and NBA, is seen by many as not caring about Puerto Ricans because he sees them as some sort of “other,” while Bush was tarnished with the reputation of, in Kanye West’s blunt words, not caring about black people.
And from an on the ground perspective, as with New Orleans, Puerto Rico is in such dire shape post-Hurricane Maria that even as more aid comes in, officials are having trouble ensuring it gets to where it is needed most.
FEMA is stretched thin
There’s a lot of strain being placed on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is in charge of responding to disasters such as Hurricane Maria. At the same time, FEMA has personnel in Texas and Florida who are still working to respond to requests for aid from the first-ever back-to-back Category 4 storms to hit the U.S. in a single hurricane season.
The home of Ashley Toledo’s mother lays in ruins after the passing of Hurricane Maria in the Punta Diamante area of Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Harvey alone, which made landfall in Texas on August 25, may become the single most expensive storm on record in the U.S., while Hurricane Irma is also expected to cost well into the tens of billions, as well.
In fact, FEMA has never faced such a tall challenge before, with the task of responding to three Category 4 hurricanes hitting multiple U.S. states and territories in less than a month. The agency may train for even worse situations, such as a terrorist attack using a weapon of mass destruction, but these storms have been unprecedented in its history, dating back to FEMA’s creation in 1979.
“I don’t believe there has been anything even remotely close to this over the last few decades that FEMA’s existed,” said Jeff Schlegelmilch, the deputy director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
The fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, rather than a full-fledged state, may explain part of the hesitation in Washington’s response to the crisis. President Trump, for example, did not mention the storm damage at all despite his prolific tweeting over the weekend. When he finally did address the situation, it was in a series of tweets Monday night that paid more attention to Puerto Rico’s debt than the ongoing suffering of its people.
A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 24, 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Maria.
Image: AFP/Getty Images
The 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, but they lack a congressional delegation that can vote in either chamber. That limits the island’s ability to marshall support for an aid package.
“They have the added disadvantage where they don’t have representation in the U.S. Congress,” Schlegelmilch said. “There’s no electoral incentive to put this on the agenda,” he said.
Nowhere is this lack of incentive more evident than in President Trump’s refusal to lift the Jones Act, a 1920 law that is limiting the ability of foreign-registered shippers to bring in aid to Puerto Rico and
Some lawmakers, notably Arizona Senator John McCain, are pushing for the president to waive the Jones Act, which would allow foreign ships to bring in aid to Puerto Rico more cheaply. The law requires foreign-registered vessels to pay tariffs and fees upon entering Puerto Rico. These fees in turn raise the cost of goods, such as gasoline, in Puerto Rico, but they help protect U.S. shipping companies from competition.
On Wednesday, Trump said he’s hesitating on the Jones Act waiver, which has been done after previous storms, because of pressure from the shipping industry.
“Well, we’re thinking about that but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted, and we have a lot of ships out there right now,” Trump said.
Island needs help in order to accept more help
The poor state of the island’s infrastructure prior to the storm, and the widespread destruction in the hurricane’s wake, means that Puerto Rico is not equipped to take advantage of a rapid, large-scale aid effort.
Schlegelmilch said FEMA is applying the same response model to Puerto Rico that it successfully did for Texas, Florida and other states hit by the earlier storms. However, this may be insufficient, given the enormity of the destruction on the island, its geographical isolation, and the complicated politics involved in assisting a U.S. territory that lacks voting members of Congress.
Satellite imagery showing the widespread power outage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (bottom) compared to before the storm (top).
“They’re applying the model for Harvey and Irma but Maria was a much more catastrophic storm,” he said. “The isolation of Puerto Rico is so much greater.”
“The level of devastation to the infrastructure is still not fully understood,” he said, noting that many of the resources being sent to the island may not help right away. “The capacity of Puerto Rico to support the response and to absorb the assets” has been damaged, he said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Energy Department said the majority of the 1.57 million electricity customers in Puerto Rico were without power, with efforts underway to restore electricity access for critical facilities, such as hospitals. “Initial assessments show significant damage to transmission and distribution systems,” the report stated.
Schlegelmilch said it may be more appropriate for the U.S. military to take a lead role in coordinating and shipping supplies to Puerto Rico, rather than FEMA.
Puerto Rico needs cash
Trump was not wrong in saying that Puerto Rico is facing a debt crisis, considering the island owes about $70 billion to creditors.
Hurricane Maria barrels toward Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm.
Image: NOAA HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
Over the years, the island tried to make up for a loss in revenue by borrowing and making deals with U.S. hedge funds, which turned out to be a terrible idea. One of the hardest hit entities on the island, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, also owes about $9 billion, which helped degrade its system before the storm hit.
The debt crisis, degraded infrastructure, and poverty found in Puerto Rico made it more vulnerable to a disaster like Hurricane Maria. In some ways, the storm may be an opportunity to rebuild the island in a more resilient way, so it will better withstand the next major hurricane that comes along.
But this can only be accomplished if the Trump administration decides to invest in such an endeavor, like it is in Texas and Florida. We don’t know if that’s the case, since Trump has yet to ask Congress for a disaster funding package. It only took a few days for him to take that step with the other two storms.
That’s not a good sign.