Trump Warned: Send Help or Risk Making Puerto Rico Crisis 'Your Katrina'
Donald Trump will visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday, to see some of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria on the lives of 3.5 million Americans. As the president announced the visit, however, one Democratic congresswoman who was born in Puerto Rico warned that his lack of attention to the disaster so far risked making it “your Katrina”.
The White House said on Tuesday Trump had also made additional disaster assistance available, “by authorizing an increase in the level of federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures”.
But it took the president five full days to respond to the plight of the US territory. When he finally did so on Monday night, his comments on Twitter were so devoid of empathy it threatened to spark new controversy.
Hot on the heels of the billowing dispute he single-handedly provoked over African American sporting figures protesting against racial inequality during the national anthem, Trump effectively blamed the islanders – all of whom are American citizens – for their own misfortune.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” Trump wrote. The US territory was hit by Maria soon after the two states were struck by Harvey and Irma.
Trump acknowledged that “much of the island was destroyed” but caustically went on to say that its electrical grid was already “in terrible shape” and that Puerto Rico owed billions of dollars to Wall Street and the banks “which, sadly, must be dealt with”.
The following morning, the president spoke to reporters at the White House before a bipartisan meeting on tax reform. Next Tuesday would, he said, be the earliest feasible day to visit the island, due to the extent of the damage. The island has been “literally destroyed”, Trump said, expressing confidence “they’ll be back”. The people of Puerto Rico “are important to all of us”, he said.
Federal authorities were landing relief supplies “on an hourly basis”, Trump said, adding that he will also stop in the US Virgin Islands, also severely damaged.
Later, at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, he denied that he had been preoccupied with the NFL issue, insisting that the government has had “tremendous reviews” for its response, which now includes the military. “We understand it’s a disaster, it’s a disaster that just happened,” he told reporters. “The grid was in bad shape before the storm and Puerto Rico didn’t get hit by one hurricane; it got hit by two hurricanes; and they were among the biggest we’ve ever seen.
“We are unloading on an hourly basis massive loads of water and food and supplies for Puerto Rico. And this isn’t like Florida where we can go right up the spine or Texas where we go right down the middle and distribute; this is a thing called the Atlantic Ocean, this is tough stuff. The governor has been so incredible in his statements about the job we’re doing: we’re doing a great job.”
Trump added for emphasis: “Everybody has said it’s amazing the job we’ve done in Puerto Rico. We’re very proud of it and I’m going there on Tuesday.”
Trump’s Monday night tweets were the first comments he had made on Puerto Rico since hours before Maria made landfall as a category 4 hurricane, pummelling the island and destroying its entire power network with winds up to 155mph (250km/h). On that occasion he told the people of Puerto Rico: “We are with you.”
But for many Puerto Ricans the reality five days after the hurricane struck was that the US president had not been with them. About 700 Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) staff were on the island in a total of 10,000 federal workers, carrying out search and rescue missions and supplying basic food and water. But Trump spent those five days mired in his self-made battle with African American sports stars, seemingly oblivious to the plight of millions of Hispanic Americans in peril in a natural disaster zone.
“At the same time that he was doing all of that, we had American citizens in Puerto Rico who are in a desperate condition,” said Hillary Clinton, Trump’s defeated opponent in the 2016 election, in a radio interview which aired before Trump’s late-night tweets on Monday. “He has not said one word about them, about other American citizens in the US Virgin Islands. I’m not sure he knows that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.”
The Trump administration has refused to waive federal restrictions on foreign ships carrying life-saving supplies to Puerto Rico – a concession it readily made for Texas and Florida in the cases of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
In the last of his tweets on Monday night, Trump said “food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well”. On Tuesday morning, while continuing to tweet about the NFL, he wrote: “Thank you to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, for your kind words on Fema etc. We are working hard. Much food and water there/on way.”
On the island, Governor Ricardo RossellÃ³, has warned that Puerto Rico is on the brink of a “humanitarian crisis”. In the hard-to-reach interior of the country, thousands are struggling with destroyed houses, a heatwave and rapidly depleting supplies of clean water and food.
Earlier on Monday, RossellÃ³ made a point of thanking George HW Bush and former Florida governor Jeb Bush for their calls of support.
Most Puerto Ricans were spared the experience of reading Trump’s tweets as a result of the total blackout. But condemnation was swift in mainland US. Juliette Kayyem, a former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama, said Trump’s response showed “a lack of empathy of epic proportions”.
On Tuesday Nydia VelÃ¡zquez, a Democratic representative from New York, said she was concerned that Trump’s continued tweets about NFL players showed he did not grasp the severity of the crisis. Referring to criticism of George W Bush following a hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005, she warned the president: “If you don’t take this crisis seriously this is going to be your Katrina.”
VelÃ¡zquez also said she was “offended and insulted” by Trump’s tweet that Puerto Rico’s public debt contributed to the crisis.
Joe Crowley, another New York Democrat, said it was “absolutely ridiculous” for Trump to mention debt “when people are suffering and dying”.
“Here’s a president who’s used bankruptcy throughout his entire career,” he said.
Below: Drone footage shows flooding in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria – video