As the territory – home to 3.4 million U.S. citizens, roughly the same population as Iowa – has been plunged into a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the president of the United States has been tweeting about NFL protests, “Little Rocket Man” and his beef with John McCain. When it finally occurred to Trump to tweet about Puerto Rico Monday night, the president’s thoughts were with the Wall Street banks who are still owed money from the territory, which declared a form of bankruptcy in May.
Amid outcry about the botched federal relief response on Tuesday, Trump blamed the Caribbean island being too far away: “This is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean,” Trump said. “It’s a very big ocean.” Unaccountably, the Navy hospital and disaster-relief ship Comfort remains docked in Virginia. Nonetheless Trump insisted, “We’re doing a really good job!”
The crisis in Puerto Rico is grave: The island is without grid power, a major dam is in danger of bursting, 80 percent of the nation’s crops have been destroyed, more than half of Puerto Ricans lack clean drinking water and thousands have been camped out waiting for flights from San Juan’s sweltering airport, hobbled by a broken radar system. Medicine, food, cash, cell phone signal, gasoline and diesel are in short supply. Diabetes patients can’t refrigerate their insulin; kidney dialysis patients are foregoing treatment. Hospitals running on backup generators are rationing fuel and suffering intermittent blackouts. The Category 4 hurricane inflicted a minimum of $30 billion in insured damage on an island with an annual GDP of just $100 billion. Puerto Rico’s governor has declared a “critical disaster,” and San Juan’s mayor insists “there is horror in the streets” – many still flooded with toxic water.
Instead of attending to this natural disaster, Trump spent the weekend on vacation at his golf club in New Jersey, alternately stirring a culture war on Twitter (disinviting Steph Curry from the White House, telling NFL owners to fire anthem kneelers and praising NASCAR for being a safe space for white supremacy) and threatening real war (blasting Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea – or, as Trump has rebranded it, #NoKo – and denouncing a missile launch by Iran that never happened).
Finally tweeting about Puerto Rico on Monday night, Trump delivered no message of empathy or solidarity for its people. Instead, he seemed to suggest the island shouldered blame for fault for its woes, and reminded residents just struggling to just stay alive that they still had big debts to pay. “Texas & Florida are doing great,” Trump wrote, “but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble. It’s 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. #FEMA.”
(The emphasis on Puerto Rico’s debt at this moment is both grotesque and ironic coming from Trump: He went belly up in Puerto Rico in 2015, when a Trump-branded condo/golf development declared bankruptcy, costing island taxpayers nearly $33 million. The financing had come from Puerto Rico’s public-funded tourism bureau.)
Trump’s callous response to this calamity has made Bush’s infamous Katrina response – sharing a birthday cake with Sen. John McCain as New Orleans drowned in 2005 – seem statesmanlike by comparison.
It is only now, nearly a week after Maria made landfall, that the federal response appears to be lurching into first gear. Tuesday, Trump amended a disaster declaration for the island to increase funding for debris removal, and eliminating the cost-sharing burden for the island. FEMA is on the ground in Puerto Rico, but seems stuck in assessment mode, according the the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz.
Blaming two deaths at a San Juan hospital on lack of diesel and backup power, an exasperated Yulín Cruz told CBS the federal response has been hamstrung by a chain of command that has yet to issue clear marching orders. “We need to get our shit together,” the San Juan mayor insisted. Calling out president Trump, she added, “Let’s not talk about the debt, the freaking debt! Let’s talk about the deaths,” warning that “hundreds of lives will be lost” if relief efforts don’t accelerate immediately.
“I don’t know how else to scream, and shout, and say it,” Yulín Cruz said. “This is the time for action.”
Federal aid is pouring into the commonwealth – but it’s not looking good for the 3.4 million American citizens who live there. Watch here.