It is a mark of shame for the administration of President Donald Trump that four-and-a-half months after Hurricane Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico, a third of the island remains without power, some still without clean drinking water. Aid has come, but at a pace lacking in urgency.
Adding to the misery this week was a cruel, if short-lived announcement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that it would be suspending its assistance to an island still deep in recovery. This just one day before Trump, in his State of the Union speech, would tell Puerto Rican disaster victims, “We are with you, we love you and we always will pull through together.”
Whether the FEMA announcement was a mistake, as some officials now claim, or its reversal was simply a hasty step in the face of powerful and justified blowback, what Americans are left with is another example of a discordant executive branch that lacks the commitment and competence to effectively marshal the resources of the world’s richest nation.
Puerto Rico remains a shadow of itself, roads still clogged with debris, roofless homes still letting in the elements. In some mountain communities, 70 percent of residents have no electricity and a third lack drinking water. Hundreds of thousands have given up waiting and instead fled to the U.S. mainland, with many of them pouring into nearby Florida.
FEMA now claims it never intended to leave the island and will continue to provide aid for as long as needed. But it was Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA director in Puerto Rico, who told National Public Radio last Monday that “the reality is that we just need to look around. Supermarkets are open and things are going back to normal.” Incredibly, his rationale for cutting off aid was that “if we’re giving free water and food, that means families are not going to supermarkets to buy.”
By way of damage control, FEMA spokesman William Booher later said that the Jan. 31 date was not a cutoff, but a trigger for internal planning, to determine whether Puerto Rico could still justify its need for federal aid. Let’s be clear, in addition to lacking the bare necessities for many of its citizens, Puerto Rico’s economy is in ruins. Tourism, the mainstay of the island, has fallen to nil. Planes are mostly outbound, carrying away those frustrated by the slow pace of recovery. There can be no question that the island still requires aid.
Still trying to mitigate the fallout — but welcome nevertheless — was a Thursday announcement by the Department of Housing and Urban Development of a $1.5 billion block grant for Puerto Rico. The money, it should be noted, was first approved by Congress in September to assist in natural disasters. Why did it take until now to make the allocation to an American territory in such desperate need? HUD said it relied on FEMA and Small Business Administration data to determine that thousands of middle- and lower-income homeowners, renters and small businesses suffered serious damage and lacked insurance for a storm whose severity was unparalleled in the island’s recent history.
Trump made much in his speech of the individual heroism and grit displayed by Americans buffeted by a number of natural disasters in the past year. Individuals can save strangers and help with rebuilding. But times like these should remind everyone about the good that government can do, the collective force it can bring to bear that saves lives, rebuilds communities and gives Americans a chance to begin again.
Puerto Ricans — who, it must be said again, are Americans at birth — deserve that as much as citizens in any other part of these United States, and with all the swiftness and urgency mustered elsewhere.