Why Trump's Response To Maria Is Not Quite Like Bush's Response To Katrina

by Jon Hecht
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The island of Puerto Rico is in bad shape after Hurricane Maria. The U.S. territory, home to over 3.5 million Americans (but not a single vote in either house of Congress), has been out of power for nearly a week, with many of the buildings destroyed and the island running out of food and supplies. So far, the crisis has yet to receive the kind of attention or aid that came for Texas and Florida as those states braced for the horrific storms Harvey and Irma. And now, some are comparing Trump's response to Maria to Bush's Katrina response.

The devastation hitting Puerto Rico is certainly comparable to what happened to New Orleans back in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Maria is the strongest hurricane to make landfall on the island in 80 years, and whereas the city of New Orleans had a little under half a million inhabitants at the time, the entire island of Puerto Rico has around seven times that number. Since it's detached from the mainland, it was much harder for people to evacuate, and now more difficult to get aid workers and supplies in, especially since most of the territory's ports and airports were shut down by the storm. Ninety-five percent of the island's cell towers were damaged, so most residents lack contact with the rest of the world. It took until Sunday for some municipalities to even get contact with the territory's governor.

Of course, George W. Bush wasn't blamed for the storm itself, but for what many saw as a lackluster response. He didn't made addressing the disaster a priority until days after the storm, and supplies weren't coming to the city fast enough. An unprepared FEMA didn't help the situation either: With the city quickly descending into horror after levies broke and relocation efforts turned chaotic, the president got dinged for staying distant, and then even more so for praising the FEMA director who so many believed had failed.

On this front, one could certainly argue that Trump is having some of the same problems that Bush did. Though he tweeted in support of the island on Sept. 19, as the situation worsened, he seemingly moved on to other things — one of those things included a feud he created between himself and the NFL after attacking players protesting systemic racism and police brutality at a rally in Alabama Friday night. He did not mention the crisis in Puerto Rico at the rally, but went on to tweet about the NFL several times over the weekend.

On Monday night, the president finally addressed the humanitarian crisis in the U.S. territory, and referred to it as being in "bad shape," though he focused as well on the island's debt problems.

But beyond the question of how the president looks like he's reacting to the crisis, a much more important question is what is actually happening on the ground. Puerto Rico is dealing with a huge crisis, but there has been help coming from the federal government. According to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, 4,000 troops have been deployed to the island. FEMA administrator Brock Long and the president's homeland security advisor Tom Bossert visited the island on Monday. More than 10,000 FEMA workers are on the island now, delivering over 1.5 million meals and 1.1 million liters of water.

Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, told PBS News Hour on Monday:

The president has been very attentive to the situation, personally calling me several times. FEMA and the FEMA director have been here in Puerto Rico twice. As a matter of fact, they were here with us today, making sure that all the resources in FEMA were working in conjunction with the central government.

Puerto Rico will undoubtedly need more help in the weeks and months to come. FEMA still has several billion dollars from the aid package recently approved by Congress in the wake of Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas, but is expected to run out of recovery cash by mid-October, necessitating further funding from Congress.

The question of how Puerto Rico will recover from Maria will be answered over the course of months and years, not days and weeks. So far, Trump has been conspicuously unconcerned by the crisis in public, but aid efforts seem to be going as they should, even if it's not enough for the scale of the devastation. But the island is still in terrible peril, and the efforts so far won't be close to enough to keep its population safe. On the question of whether this becomes President Trump's Katrina, it's hard to say anything definitively until we see more about the fate of Puerto Rico.