The Trump administration’s response to the suffering of 3.4 million US citizens in Puerto Rico after the ravaging of that island by Hurricane Maria is anemic and appalling. The benchmark is how quickly and massively the administration responded to similar damage inflicted by other recent hurricanes on the southern US mainland. And while the administration ignored the Puerto Rican catastrophe, Trump went to war against the NFL. Why the difference? Why the indifference? Read on.
Dana Milbank at the Washington Post details evidence favoring The sad suspicion about Trump’s shameful treatment of Puerto Rico.
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 most of the homes in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota were either damaged or destroyed in one day.
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). The Post’s Joel Achenbach, Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton called the three Navy amphibious ships dispatched to Puerto Rico “a modest fleet given the scale of the crisis.”
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.”
… 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.
… 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.
Waiving the Jones Act
There is one person whose voice might help change some of this shameful foot-dragging. Senator John McCain renewed his push for waiving the Jones Act, but, as of this writing yesterday, the US won’t waive shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico relief. Here is that story from The Hill.
The Trump administration on Tuesday denied a request from several members of Congress to waive shipping restrictions to help get gasoline and other supplies to Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it would not be temporarily waiving the Jones Act, which limits shipping between coasts to U.S.-flagged vessels, according to Reuters. DHS waived the act following hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit the mainland U.S.
Following outcry over the move, however, Trump said Wednesday that the White House is considering issuing a waiver for Puerto Rico.
The DHS has in the past waived the rule to allow cheaper and more readily-available foreign vessels to supply goods to devastated areas. But DHS officials maintain that waiving the act for Puerto Rico would not help the U.S. island territory due to damaged ports preventing ships from docking.
“The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability,” a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection told Reuters.
In a letter to the department on Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged DHS to rethink the decision, citing the agency’s willingness to waive the Jones Act for relief efforts in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“The Department of Homeland Security has been given the ability to waive the Jones Act to accommodate national security concerns, and has done so twice in the last month,” McCain wrote. “These emergency waivers have been valuable to speed up recovery efforts in the impacted regions. However, I am very concerned by the Department’s decision not to waive the Jones Act for current relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria."
McCain called the department’s decision “unacceptable” and warned that Puerto Rico faces a humanitarian crisis as the island’s 3.4 million people struggle to survive without power or clean water.
Officials estimate the island could be without power for up to six months.
“It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster,” McCain wrote.
"Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act,” he wrote.
UPDATE: Trump authorizes waiver to loosen shipping regulations for Puerto Rico reports Daniella Diaz at CNN.
The White House has authorized a waiver to loosen shipping rules regarding Puerto Rico that island officials say would be a significant help for recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria.
“At @ricardorossello request, @POTUS has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted Thursday morning.
Her tweet comes after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he asked the White House to loosen the regulations Wednesday night.
He joined the growing list of officials who argued that lifting the the Jones Act – a federal law designed to protect the financial interests of US shipbuilders by limiting shipping by foreign vessels – would help expedite supplies to the ravaged island. The act has had the unintended consequence of making it twice as expensive to ship things from the US mainland to Puerto Rico as it is to ship from any other foreign port in the world, according to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s office.
The act was quickly lifted to help Texas and Florida in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The Department of Homeland Security said it was able to lift the restrictions quickly because the Department of Defense requested a waiver for those states and the department hadn’t yet done so for Puerto Rico.
Trump told reporters on Wednesday that “we’re thinking” about lifting the law, but added that a “lot of shippers” didn’t want it lifted.
Of course they didn’t. And, in the absence of public shaming, neither did our (gag) president. Given the choice between saving lives of brown-skinned, Spanish speaking foreigners and profits for the shippers, big bidnesss will win every time. Oops. Did I need reminding that those foreigners are actually US citizens?
My guess is that at least 3.4 million of Trump’s supporters are just OK with the laggardly, niggardly response by Trump and his administration to the devastation of Puerto Rico. That is the answer to my question: Why the indifference? And that says very bad things about America, much deeper things, than the dude with orange hair.