Nearly two weeks will pass before President Trump makes his first visit to Puerto Rico, where millions of Americans have been stranded without access to phones, electricity or clean drinking water since Sept. 20. Lawmakers in Washington and elected officials on the island are urging Trump to fast-track emergency relief efforts — and to show the same urgency in responding to Puerto Rico as he did when disaster struck Texas and Florida.
Roughly 80 percent of power lines are down along the island, and only 11 of Puerto Rico's 69 hospitals have power. Close to half the population is without access to drinking water. Damage to roads, bridges and ports is leaving communities stranded without aid. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it "one of the gravest humanitarian crises in recent memory," while Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner in the U.S. Congress said the damage has set the island back decades.
Trump characterized relief efforts as "doing well" despite Puerto Rico being "in deep trouble," during a series of tweets Monday. He emphasized the challenges the federal government faces in bringing aid to Puerto Rico, saying, "The difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It's a big ocean, it's a very big ocean." Despite a handful of tweets about the plight of Puerto Ricans, Trump did not mention Americans in the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) until Tuesday, nearly a week after the storm made landfall.
“We’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and in Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico,” Trump told reporters in Washington. But 146 Democrats say he's not doing enough. They're calling on Trump to leverage the power of the military to aid recovery efforts.
"It could be because [USVI and Puerto Rico are] not states," Rep. Darren Soto, the first Floridian of Puerto Rican descent elected to Congress, tells Bustle. "It could be because [the Trump administration] underestimated the damage that’s occurred."
"We have Americans who are dying down there."
In the eight days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Trump made two visits to the southern states hammered by the storm, talking with victims and convening an on-the-ground meeting with emergency response officials. When recovery efforts initially kept Trump from witnessing the worst of the damage, he pressed aids to schedule a trip to nearby Corpus Christi and to Austin, Texas' capital. Trump's trip to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, more than a dozen days after the storm made landfall, will be his first. He has also restricted lawmakers from visiting the devastated island aboard military aircraft, thwarting at least one planned trip by a group of around 10 members of the House and Senate ahead of his own trip Tuesday.
Pushing Puerto Rico Out Of The Headlines
Critics have seized upon the president's attention to a domestic controversy of Trump's own making: In the days since Hurricane Maria made landfall, Trump has tweeted six times about the storm and recovery efforts, and twenty-two times about professional athletes declining to stand during the national anthem and turning down invitations to visit the White House. Trump initially made the comments during a rally for Alabama Senator Luther Strange, who lost a primary in the state Tuesday evening. A major blow to Republicans' latest effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act set up twin losses for the establishment wing of the party in less than a week. All the while, more than three million Americans languished without power or potable water.
Less than a week after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the Trump administration moved to request funding for emergency response efforts in the severely damaged southern states, and Congress dumped billions of dollars into FEMA's coffers. But the administration is reportedly weeks away from submitting a formal request for aid this time around. While FEMA's short-term cash flow is flush after the recent infusion of funds, the delay is fueling fear on the island.
"This is clearly a critical disaster," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told The Washington Post. "It can’t be minimized and we can’t start overlooking us now that the storm passed, because the danger lurks.” Until the Trump White House makes a formal request for aid, Congress cannot begin to flesh out a disaster relief bill.
"What’s hurting readiness is not taking the crisis as seriously as the administration should," Soto says. That includes sending the USNS Comfort, a seaborne medical treatment facility — essentially, a hospital on water — to Puerto Rico's shores. The 1,000-bed ship was ordered to deploy to Haiti one day after an earthquake rocked the island in 2010, but the response time after Maria lagged: The ship received its orders two days after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted a call to Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis to send the Comfort on its way, and nearly a week after the storm made landfall. It is scheduled to get underway Friday.
How A Century-Old Law May Be Hampering Relief Efforts
Trump has also been taking fire from within his own party, lead by Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio, for refusing to temporarily waive The Jones Act, which restricts coast-to-coast shipping to American owned-and-operated vessels. Puerto Rican and American officials argue foreign ships, which can be cheaper or more readily available, could carry food, fuel, and supplies to Puerto Rico's shores. The Department of Homeland Security waived The Jones Act after Harvey and Irma struck, but declined to do so after Maria, saying there is “sufficient capacity” to handle Puerto Rico's needs with U.S. flagged ships. And Trump has said it's not in the interest of American shippers to lift the law.
"We need action now to avoid further catastrophe and loss of life."
"We are asking for an overwhelming comprehensive humanitarian effort and we’ve gotten less than we’ve wanted so far," Soto says. "We have Americans who are dying down there, so we’ve impressed upon Trump and House leadership that we need action now to avoid further catastrophe and loss of life."
Only 54 percent of Americans polled know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and those who know of the island's status as U.S. territory are nearly twice as likely to support bestowing aid than people who do not.
Does Puerto Rico's Debt Matter?
Even as the President took flack for a perceived lack of attention to the snowballing crisis in Puerto Rico, he's been taken to task by an elected official and a late-night host for a seeming lack of empathy as well. Trump linked the island's dire need for aid with its "massive debt" and "billions of dollars... ...owed to Wall Street and the banks" in a series of tweets on Monday, giving rise to headlines that excoriated his comments. (Earlier this year, Puerto Rico filed the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history.)
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz fired back. "You don't put debt above people," she told CNN. "You put people above debt." Late-night host Seth Meyers slammed the President on Tuesday's show for harping on the island's debt, while challenging him to make Puerto Rico — part of America — "Great Again."
Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez of New York, who was one of the few lawmakers to make it to the desperate territory before Trump's travel restrictions, was reminded of another major American crisis after surveying the damage Friday. "This is going to be Mr. Trump’s Katrina,” she warned.