• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Puerto Rico In Peril

October 2017

Nearly two weeks ago, Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Like her predecessors Irma and Harvey, Maria was an abnormally aggressive storm at the height of an atypically restive season for hurricanes. The Atlantic and Gulf coasts, along with their noncontiguous Caribbean neighbors beside and below, have been battered with winds, with rains, with storm surges, with gales, and with floods. They’ve been drowned in nervous anticipation, paralyzed in darkness, and smothered in anxiety for the better part of three months. None unscathed, none immune, all have been beaten and bruised by these three relentless storms.

Though each was distinct. All three could be characterized by their unique personalities. Harvey was tempestuous and torrential. He caused diluvial floods not commonly seen in America along the Texas and Louisiana shores. Irma was gargantuan in size. So large was she, few storms were available to which she might be compared. What’s worse, her latitude encouraged her stamina, and her ascent up the east coast felt inexhaustible. Maria, the most recent and least publicized of the three, was compact but explosive, quick but catastrophic. All three have since dissipated, but their destruction will persist for many days. If early estimates are to be believed, their combined economic affect sings to the tune of $180 billion. This would place the year 2017 and its many storms among the costliest in recent memory and possibly in recorded history.

Each successive hurricane felt as though it were markedly worse than the one that had come before, but none was so bad as Maria. This can be said with confidence. Puerto Rico, the small American commonwealth of 3.4 million citizens, was absolutely throttled when she touched down on September the 20th. Landing first upon the island’s southeastern corner, Maria proceeded to course through the island’s verdant heart, before finally exiting in the west. Few parts of the island, whose landmass constitutes only one hundred miles by thirty-five, were unscathed. From Salinas in the south to San Juan in the north, nary an acre was left unmolested in Maria’s wake.

Because of the totality of her touch, nearly every Puerto Rican has been affected in some way. All are without power, most are without potable water, and countless are they who wait in the lines athwart the doors of the repositories in whose emptying bowels there might be found edible handouts. Few are those amongst those faceless masses who expect their conditions to improve any time soon. And, as the days turn into weeks and as federal relief—upon which the already impecunious island so desperately relies—remains painfully unforthcoming, even these most hopeful of Puerto Ricans can’t help but begin to feel as if they’ve been neglected.

After this disastrous storm swept through the island, Puerto Ricans expected federal succor promptly to arrive. Understandably, they expected a response similar to that which was attended to their fellow Americans on the continent above. After hurricanes Harvey and Irma, President Trump was only too eager to intervene in Texas and Florida. And aside from Melania’s meme-worthy heels, the president and his cabinet handled both situations rather well and with seriousness and alacrity. For the most part, federal assistance was responsive, animated, and expeditious; The government was ready and willing at a moment’s notice. On the ground, Floridians, Texans, and Louisianans were only too comforted to see Washington present.

Despondent though it makes me to say as much, this hasn’t been the case in Puerto Rico. In the hours and then the days following Hurricane Maria, the Trump administration was uncharacteristically slow to respond, or at least appeared as such. In the storm’s incipient aftermath, the frightful situation went all-but unacknowledged in the West Wing. While President Trump awaited Harvey and Irma’s approach with awestruck anticipation (tweeting about it as it tore through the coast), he was noticeably quiet about Maria. The harrowing reality that descended upon Puerto Rico was second-page news; it was the small-print subtitle beneath the weekend’s sexier headlines. Puerto Ricans found themselves buried behind the cluttered background of a messy media mélange.

That weekend, Trump traipsed off to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey from Thursday till Sunday (with an interim dash down to Alabama to stump for the once temporary and now lame-duck senator, Luther Strange). There he gave life anew to the nonsensical NFL kneeling controversy. While Puerto Rico was torn asunder, the president pertinaciously stood his ground on the issue of kneeling in football and all the frivolity that it entails. From that time through Sunday, he tweeted breathlessly about the topic. Trump’s football fulminations grabbed the media by the collar, and no story, no matter how large or demanding—not even a hurricane’s impending assault—would’ve been sufficiently big to break the chokehold.

If that head-on collision between politics and culture wasn’t enough to force into subservience all other news stories, Trump thought it wise to re-ignite his feud with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Two days after the hurricane, Trump said precious little about the storm’s destruction and the government’s response, but felt it prudent to warn the “obvious madman” Kim Jong Un that he would be “tested like never before”. Also in the foreground, ranking third behind the aforementioned items one and two, the administration’s vaunted tax-reform proposal was slated for its big reveal. The timing was all wrong for the G.O.P to spread its long-awaited gospel, which detailed a “middle-class miracle” that will hit the Senate floor next week.

All the while, Puerto Rico—that paradisiacal island nestled insensately beneath our noses—was left to wallow. The island floated without power and without a peep, precariously in the waters below us. While all the silly issues on the continent swirled, Puerto Ricans awaited the salvific hand of the government, the sustenance to fill their bellies, that wouldn’t arrive for still days to come. The island was quite literally insulated; it was left without communication, food, and water—the most basic things for life.

At first, the emergency was imposing but manageable; People merely needed sustenance. In time, though, and without immediate aid, it became something worse. It became the neglect of a forgotten island’s existence. So far, out of a total sixty-five deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria, sixteen were Puerto Ricans. However, due to the chaotic circumstances, this figure has been contested. A reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism that the death toll is nearer to sixty, and will potentially exceed that figure when the debris clears.

It wasn’t until photographs of the ravished “rich port”, as her name boasts, began circulating that the administration began to act. These images surfaced on Monday, nearly seven days after the storm had passed. At this point, though, the president’s response was already too late. So perfunctory was his response and the entire process, that administration spokespeople (when asked) wouldn’t say whether or not Trump met with officials appointed to the crisis response team as Maria’s devastation was becoming slowly known. It’s speculative to think he didn’t, but perhaps not so when you consider he didn’t even have a public meeting on Monday’s agenda to discuss the details of the storm. It appears to have been a non-entity for him.

This “out of sight, out of mind” mentality became untenable when Puerto Ricans reached the airwaves to voice their desperation. Leading these pleas was San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz. By mid-week, the stinging sounds of her pleas were circulating on all news stations. She provided the mainland with a perspective it sorely overlooked. As she spoke, her passion weaved through her words, and her emotion burst through its seams. Quite succinctly, she said “We are dying…and you are killing us with the inefficiency”. Regarding her patience, she said that she was “done being polite” and “done being politically correct”. She followed that by saying that she was “mad as hell” and couldn’t comprehend how “a great nation cannot fathom the logistics” for helping the small island territory. When asked to point a plea toward the president and officials in Washington, Cruz said this: “I beg you to take charge and save lives”. She beseeched the Beltway, but to what avail?

Cruz, for all her efforts, soon found herself demeaned. No sooner did her plea reach President Trump’s ears than he shot back with his wonted opprobrium. He accepted into his expanding fighting ring an unwitting adversary in Cruz. Responding to her pleas, he attacked the mayor’s “poor leadership ability” and her inability to get San Juan’s workers to help with the recovery. A false story peddled was that said workers’ lack of haste was motivated by their unionizing efforts to leverage better working conditions. Trump said that, after having been “very complimentary only a few days ago”, Mayor Cruz “has now been told by the Democrats” that she “must be nasty to Trump”. Finally, Trump said that the results of the recovery, albeit woefully belated, are sure to “speak much louder than complaints by San Juan mayor”.

These tweets were but a few of the jeers from on high in a freshet of the president’s messages. Along with inveighing against Cruz, Trump reliably scolded the fake news media, whom he claimed to be in “conjunction with the Dems” for spreading a false and unsavory (or better yet, false because it’s unsavory) narrative about his administration’s slow response. He urged Puerto Ricans not to believe that same and spurious fake news media and said that they (the fake news correspondents) were “working overtime” to promulgate perfidious tales of the situation in Puerto Rico.

Aside from these warnings, Trump extended his adulation to Governor Ricardo Rossello and Congresswoman Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon for their sedulous work on the ground. However, conspicuously absent from his commendations of Puerto Rican officials was Mayor Cruz. The omission was to be expected. He also took a moment for some much-needed self-gratification, since no one outside his psyche had provided him with a plaudit nor a cheer. He assured himself that his administration was “getting great marks from the people that truly matter!”.

It struck me that many of his tweets were punctuated with the hashtag “PR”. I couldn’t help but think that Trump’s whole reaction, over-compensating and over-zealous as it proved to be, was just that—a smokescreen of a clean-up in the aisle of public relations. It seems obvious that he was trying to re-write the pages of a bungled and belated attempt to respond to this natural disaster. Puerto Ricans and all other Americans have taken note. Trump, be he aloof or unprepared, surely miscalculated this cataclysm and was far too slow to respond. And while it’s unfair to judge his administration on this hurricane and this hurricane alone, as the saying goes, one is only as good as one’s last disaster. By that metric, the president is doing rather poorly.

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