Hurricane Florence is closing in on the Carolinas as the anniversary of Hurricane Maria — which left 3,000 dead — approaches
Late last month, Puerto Rican officials raised the death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to nearly 3,000. The storm which struck last summer, ravaged the island’s electrical grid and left thousands homeless and without water and other supplies. The Trump administration’s response was sharply criticized, and now, as Hurricane Florence bears down on the East Coast, the president is touting the job he did. Speaking from the White House on Tuesday, the Trump called the response “incredibly successful,” an “unsung success” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about.” On Wednesday morning, he tweeted that the job they did was “unprecedented,” while sliding in an attack on San Juan’s “incompetent” mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been critical of Trump.
Cruz had called out Trump hours earlier.
Yes, Puerto Rico is an island and yes, its electrical grid was precarious before the storm hit, but it’s hard to argue the administration’s response was not a failure. It certainly didn’t receive any “A Pluses.” In October 2017, the United Nations issued a statement criticizing the “alarming” conditions on the island, noting that thousands were still homeless and lacking basic supplies five weeks after the storm hit. “We can’t fail to note the dissimilar urgency and priority given to the emergency response in Puerto Rico, compared to the U.S. states affected by hurricanes in recent months,” wrote Leilani Farha, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to housing. The disparity in relief provided to Puerto Rico versus Texas and Florida is astonishing. According to FEMA, 1.6 million meals were provided 9 days after the storm, compared to a combined 16 million to Texas and Florida after Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, respectively. In the same time frame, Puerto Rico received 2.8 million liters of water compared to a combined 11.5 to Texas and Florida, and, despite the number of houses destroyed, only 5,000 tarps compared to a combined 118,000 for the two mainland states.
In July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released an internal report acknowledging a lack of preparedness. The report detailed how the agency was understaffed, how warehouses that were supposed to contain supplies like cots and tarps were nearly empty and how their response plan “did not address insufficiently maintained infrastructure (e.g., the electrical grid).” Communication was also a major issue. The agency was unable to provide the number of satellite phones necessary, and struggled mightily in tracking the flow of supplies. For example:
A FEMA letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that was made public on Tuesday revealed that the agency approved just 75 of nearly 2,500 requests for funeral assistance made by Puerto Ricans. FEMA Administrator Brock Long noted that many of the requests were denied because applicants lacked documentation proving a loved one had died. Inadequate documentation has also been cited as a reason the death toll remained so low until recently, which contributed to the absence of necessary supplies. “The death toll issue has been one of the biggest cover-ups in American history,” Jose Andrés, a chef who has been assisting with the relief effort, said in an interview, according to the Times. “Everybody needs to understand that the death toll was a massive failure by federal government and the White House. Not recognizing how many people died in the aftermath meant the resources and full power of the government was taken away from the American people of Puerto Rico.”
Trump’s personal response was also lacking, if not downright offensive. While visiting the island in the storm’s aftermath, Trump said that Puerto Rico should be “very proud” that only 16 people compared to the nearly 2,000 who perished in Hurricane Katrina, which the president described as a “real catastrophe.” Trump also complained that the need to provide assistance “threw our budget a little out of whack.” The president invited Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló to speak at the public briefing at which these comments were made, but did not extend the same courtesy to Cruz, whom Trump accused of playing politics. Trump was also criticized for playfully lobbing rolls of paper towels to victims as if he were shooting basketballs. “Racism and discrimination have nestled in the White House, and abuse against Latinos has found a powerful instrument in the president,” Cruz recently told Newsweek. “Puerto Ricans will never erase from their memory images of Trump throwing paper towels to [hurricane survivors].”
Though Governor Rosselló has spoken highly of Trump in the past, he criticized the president’s recent characterization of the response effort. “The historical relationship between Puerto Rico and Washington is unfair and unAmerican,” he wrote in a statement released Tuesday. “It is certainly not a successful relationship. This was the worst natural disaster in our modern history. Our basic infrastructure was devastated, thousands of our people lost their lives and many others still struggle.”
Despite Trump’s assurances that the government is ready for Hurricane Florence, planning for the future isn’t exactly one of the president’s strengths. This applies to the national debt, trade and, of course, climate change, which the president has repeatedly dismissed as a hoax. Ironically, the primary reason why Hurricane Florence is “tremendously big and tremendously wet,” as the president said Tuesday, is because of abnormally warm ocean temperatures. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the administration has been diverting FEMA’s funding to ICE, as Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) revealed Tuesday night on The Rachel Maddow Show.
In addition to the tweets and statements made from the White House on Tuesday, Trump posted a video message to Twitter to warn of the size of the storm and assure residents of the affected region that the government is prepared. He made sure to hedge, though, just in case things go awry. “Bad things can happen when you’re talking about a storm this size,” Trump said of Florence. “It’s called Mother Nature. You never know. But we know.”
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