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Pay attention to Puerto Rico

By Zach Phil Schwartz

Section: Opinions

September 29, 2017

Devastation struck Puerto Rico on Sep. 20. Hurricane Maria, at Category 4 intensity, rocked the densely populated American territory to a point of crisis. A beautiful Caribbean Island home to nearly 3,500,000 people (almost as much as Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, South Dakota and North Dakota combined)—American citizens—is on the brink. The federal government, meanwhile, is running around like a headless chicken in its (mis)management while the president berates football players. There is something wrong here.

Hurricane Maria disintegrated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. Neighborhoods are flooded, streets are blocked and communications are virtually nil. The entire island is without power, as the storm knocked out 80 of the island’s power transmission lines. The island is also rapidly running out of clean water, food and fuel, due to the widespread loss of electricity and damage to farms. One CNN headline dated Sep. 26 referred to the situation as “apocalyptic.” With long curfews in place, no power, widespread looting, emergency services in crisis and a timeframe for restoration that could take months—as Governor Ricardo Rossello warned—”apocalyptic” does not seem very far off.

The situation is grave: apocalyptic, even. So why is the President of the United States wasting time pushing a number of countless tweets about how NFL players protest? Why is it he did this while in the midst of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma he was actually paying attention to the storms (albeit on Twitter) and the storm response coordination? There is a double standard at play.

On Sept. 8, the government waived the Jones Act for affected areas in Texas and Florida. The Jones Act prevents foreign vessels from delivering goods to U.S. ports. As an island, Puerto Rico post-storm is far more inaccessible than was Texas and Florida. Naturally, one would assume that the administration would immediately waive the restrictions again to allow for more relief.

Yesterday evening, after mounting public outcry, the president finally announced he was waiving the Act for Puerto Rico. However, throughout this past week, Trump showed reluctance to waive the act again. On Tuesday, Sept. 26, according to Reuters, the federal government had not found reason to waive the restrictions once more.

When explaining the Trump administration’s reluctance, Trump stated “We’re thinking about that, but we have a lot of shippers and…a lot of people who work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted. And we have a lot of ships out there right now”.

Further, it was not until nearly a week after the storm hit on Sep. 20 that The Washington Post would finally be able to report some good news, that the emergency response on the part of the military is ratcheting up. It took until several days after former Democratic-nominee for president Hillary Clinton advocated sending a Naval hospital ship to the island for it to actually come to fruition. In the meantime, to say the hospitals on the ground have been unsafe would be a major understatement; in a Reuters video news report a doctor in a San Juan hospital urged those with the resources in need of medical attention to leave the island.

This is but a small taste of what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico. Politicians and pundits from across the aisle are throwing around the dreaded “Katrina” comparison in the direction of the Trump Administration, an unfortunate twist on the 2005 catastrophic storm that threatens to tarnish the political reputation of whomever it is thrust upon. No two storms are, in reality, strictly comparable, but at the same time, we must not lose sight of how dire the situation is right now.

An entire island full of American citizens is isolated, without power, and at risk of more suffering if critical infrastructure continues to fail. Puerto Rico’s governor has requested urgent assistance from the Trump Administration, and only now after a week is some kind of substantive response in the works. The US government has, as of this Monday, sent a total of approximately 10,000 troops to Puerto Rico, mostly to deliver supplies. In comparison, during the peak of Katrina’s devastation, there were 50,000 National Guard troops sent to the New Orleans area.

Puerto Rico deserves more than this. We need real leadership, not some half-assed response led by scrambling bureaucrats looking for direction from an absent-minded administration. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has held multiple conferences outlining and providing updates on the aid that his state has sent and will send to Puerto Rico. The President of the United States, however, was busy holding a rally in Alabama for very little reason. He was then busy disinviting Steph Curry from the White House. After that, he squabbled for days with football players over kneeling during the national anthem. He, in passing, remarked on Puerto Rico, the subject was not where it should have been; at the forefront of executive conversation and leadership.

We need leadership from the federal government like that which Governor Cuomo has been showing. Otherwise, the now-scrambling federal response operation could very well up being too late. The response needs executive direction and it cannot look like an undertaking from an apathetic executive branch. For the sake of the people of Puerto Rico, the government must act with rigor. It must act aggressively. If the President cannot focus his attention and resources to a humanitarian crisis involving millions of American citizens, “apocalyptic” conditions could possibly become a real apocalypse that would render the island uninhabitable, destroying the homes, livelihoods, and lives of everyone there.

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