Isolating the Island: How Trump is Failing Puerto Rico

Opinions  /  by Deven Kinney '20  /  October 06, 2017

Jeffrey Tao '20 / The Lawrence

On September 20, Hurricane Maria, the fifth strongest storm ever to hit the United States, battered the island of Puerto Rico. For days after the storm struck, the situation on the island of 3 million people was dire, and millions remain desperate.

The complete devastation in Puerto Rico should come as no surprise. It’s not as if Maria suddenly appeared as a Category 5 storm out of the blue. Meteorologists had been tracking the path of the storm as it began to brew and develop in the Atlantic. Of course, FEMA and federal responders deserve some leeway, as the secluded island is in itself a recipe for a logistical nightmare. And credit must be given to the 4,500 National Guard and FEMA members who landed in Puerto Rico to assist with immediate recovery. But the aid was clearly not enough.

Maria brought a myriad of issues to an island already suffering from worn infrastructure and a struggling economy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that 55 percent of the island’s inhabitants are without potable water. Of the 1,600 cell phone towers on the island, the storm wrecked 1,360 of them, leaving many locations, particularly rural communities, completely isolated from the outside world. Only one hospital on the island is fully functional, entire farms have been decimated, and airports such as San Juan International are a hot mess, literally and figuratively, with no air conditioning and waiting lists of upwards of 20,000 people. One of the most difficult problems is lack of power, created from the destruction of the Puerto Rican electric grid. Without electricity, people are running out of food, water, and medical treatment, often times with their life on the line. Especially in regions outside the major metropolitan regions of San Juan and Poncé, time is running out.

The indifferent attitude and poor leadership from our President and the White House towards this humanitarian crisis was extremely disheartening. It just hasn’t been enough, as Trump has only given Puerto Rico the bare minimum of help that it needs. Throughout this past week, Trump has yet to display the slightest of urgency regarding the situation. After the immediate frenzy from the federal government to prepare the night of the storm, it was as if the White House retreated into the dark. And as the devastation continued to escalate, Trump retreated to to Bedminster to play golf while remaining completely silent on his plans to help Puerto Rico. Instead, he focused his attention on tweeting about his growing feud with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the recent NFL controversy over kneeling during the national anthem. Even the meeting that Mr. Trump had with his cabinet with focused on his new travel ban. As millions of Americans in Puerto Rico grew helpless, Trump was nowhere to be found.

Of course, five days later, Trump’s tweeting did nothing to resolve any problems that had surfaced. Trump was unwilling to take responsibility for his poor response to Puerto Rico, blaming the difficult recovery process on the island's own failing economy and infrastructure. It doesn’t take an expert leader to know that a humanitarian crisis is not the right time to be criticizing the internal struggles that Puerto Rico faced leading up to the storm.

In the days that followed, Trump continually praised his own effort, repeatedly making it clear that his administration was doing an excellent job, when in reality, millions had yet to receive substantial care from the US government. A week after the storm, Trump had yet to lift the Jones Act, a shipping waiver that would make it much more difficult for the necessary supplies to reach Puerto Rico. It seems to be a pattern of Trump to turn even the worst of situations into self-praise: his ego is so large that he made responding to a Category 5 hurricane about his success.

To exacerbate the issue, Trump went on one of his signature tweeting tyrades, this time criticizing the mayor of Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz, saying that Puerto Rico wanted everything done for them and that the mayor was showing poor leadership. These tweets are absolutely unacceptable. Countless stories illustrate the island’s strength during some of the most difficult times. For Trump to ignore this resilience and then comment on the people whose homes and livelihoods have been wrecked is sickening and clearly illustrates our President’s incompetence as a leader. I truly hope that Puerto Ricans continue to work together and are able to receive the aid and prayers needed to recover from a disaster as destructive as Maria. For all of their spirit, they deserve it.