Suppose that the entire San Diego metropolitan area had lost electrical power, and it wouldn’t be restored for months.
Or, suppose that most of the ports, roads and cellular towers in the Seattle metropolitan area had been destroyed, and a major dam had failed.
Or, that the combined populations of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont had seen much of their forests and agricultural land wiped out.
Or, that the residents of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming – combined – had lost access to food and clean water, leaving them vulnerable to cholera. And imagine that overflowing hospitals, without power, had no capacity to deal with an outbreak.
Now, imagine that in response to any of these scenarios, the president of the United States variously ignored the plight of the affected Americans (in all of the above cases about 3.4 million people, give or take), blamed them for their own troubles and provided inadequate help. This is precisely what is happening right now to the 3.4 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, an island territory more populous than about 20 states. Hurricane Maria essentially wiped out these Americans’ ports, roads, electricity, communications, water supply and crops and many homes. Yet, a week after the storm, the response from the American mainland has been paltry.
There is no rush, as there was after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, to approve the emergency funds that Puerto Rico will surely need. There has been no massive movement of military personnel and equipment to Puerto Rico: no aircraft carrier (one was sent to the Florida Keys in response to Hurricane Irma), no hospital ship (finally on Tuesday afternoon the Navy said it was sending one).
President Trump, so visible when Harvey and Irma hit, all but ignored the devastation that Maria brought to Puerto Rico, devoting more attention to respect for the flag at NFL games. When he did turn his focus to Puerto Rico on Monday, it was to say that the island “was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt” and that its “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.”
Two Trump Cabinet members, Energy Secretary Rick Perry (who traveled with Trump to Texas and Florida after hurricanes there) and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, made a joint public appearance Monday but didn’t even mention Puerto Rico. And the Trump administration said it would not assist Puerto Rico by waiving the Jones Act, which restricts the use of foreign cargo ships, after waiving the act in response to Harvey and Irma.
Finally, Trump began to say the right things on Tuesday, acknowledging Puerto Rico “needs a lot of money.” He said he’ll visit next Tuesday. Trump explained that there’s “a very big ocean” around Puerto Rico but said “we’re doing a really good job” and predicted his administration will get an “A-plus” for its response.
That’s out of the question, but Trump could avoid a failing grade if he hurries. Experts say the island could within days have disease outbreaks and the loss of law and order.
As the Washington Post reported, Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, said Monday that he understands why Puerto Rico’s residents feel forgotten. “They feel isolated, and they’re probably getting a sense of betrayal, of, well, ‘Where is the cavalry?’” Zukunft said.
Good question. Phillip Carter, a military specialist with the Center for a New American Security, wrote a piece for Slate likening Trump’s “anemic” response in Puerto Rico to President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Carter told me Puerto Rico conservatively needs a response of 50,000 U.S. troops. Even Haiti – a foreign country – got the help of more than 20,000 troops after its 2010 earthquake.
“The response to Harvey and Irma and previous disasters has been much more substantial,” Carter said. Trump, he said, “is more interested in the NFL than Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”
No question the logistics are harder in Puerto Rico. But the 3.4 million U.S. citizens there have long endured second-class status: no voting members of Congress, no presidential vote, unequal benefits and high poverty. Now, the Trump administration’s failure to help Americans in Puerto Rico with the same urgency it gave those in Texas and Florida furthers a sad suspicion that the disparate treatment has less to do with logistics than language and skin color.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.
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