• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Puerto Rico In Peril: Part II

October 2017


On Tuesday afternoon, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria’s dizzying demolition through Puerto Rico had taken place, President Trump alighted Air Force One for his first visit to San Juan. There, with First Lady Melania affixed at his side, the president stepped into a situation steeped in ill-will and assailing accusations from afar. During the preceding weeks, President Trump repeatedly inveighed against the “politically motivated ingrates” on the island and harangued the “fake news media” for their unflattering coverage of his administration’s cumbrous response. Puerto Ricans, who thought themselves absolved from the political fray, had become victims both of a hurricane and of Trump’s torrential tweet-storm that was daily fulminating.


The president was received on the tarmac by Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who held in one arm his young daughter, and in the other his patient hope for the federal government’s relief. Rosselló was third in a sad succession of governors to have held this heart-heavy hope in recent weeks. Previously, governors Greg Abbott and Rick Scott have likewise welcomed Trump to states torn commensurately asunder. As such, Puerto Rico is the third disaster zone President Trump has visited in as many months.


As was the case during Trump’s earlier visits to Texas and then Florida, his cringe-worthy moments far outnumbered his consolatory, heart-warming ones. The president commenced his comments regarding Puerto Rico by comparing Hurricane Maria to a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He explained that “every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s seen anything like this”.


Always after I transcribe his words from mouth to pen, I feel as though I’m being ungrammatical. I need to square myself with our nation’s new-age, anti-syntactical sage. That said, that which I quote is true to tongue.


Trump was sanguine when comparing each storm’s casualties. He asked rhetorically, “What is the death count as of this moment? Seventeen?”, to which he was provided a certified death toll of sixteen. “Sixteen people versus in the thousands”, he said, reflecting on the impressive disparity. He continued, “You can be very proud of all of your people and all of your people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud”. At day’s end, the death toll was updated to include thirty-four people deceased. Still better than a thousand, to be sure…


When one compares deaths in this way, each of which is an individual and incomprehensible travesty, the feeling of pride is an unnatural one. This isn’t a knock against the president’s data-driven mindset, as any good consequentialist can tell you sixteen is preferable to one thousand and eight hundred and thirty-three (which was Katrina’s final death toll). It’s impossible to assess an entity’s efficacy, whether it be a state, territory, industry, or company, without considering the ineluctable, faceless numbers. So yes, it’s good that less people died, but this should be comprehended as a somber consolation and not a victory to revel in.


Instead, President Trump saved his gloating for other matters. He commended Rosselló for his fine gubernatorial work in the storm’s wake, but it was quite clear that Trump was indirectly lauding himself. Rosselló was merely a byway for the president to reach his ego’s prurient need for self-satisfaction. In the days before his visit, Trump responded to the media’s tales of his administration’s alleged inattentiveness by quoting Rosselló as having said, “The administration and the president, every time we’ve spoken, they’ve delivered” and that the administration is doing a “great job!”. And if these weren’t sufficiently oleaginous compliments to lather in, he applauded Rosselló not for managing his ravaged island, but for starting right at the beginning “appreciating what we (the administration) did” and “giving us the highest grades”.


Trump accompanied these self-gratifying approbations with a few awkward moments. Perhaps in an amnesic moment, he praised Puerto Rico’s weather, calling it “second to none”. He followed this with the concession (that I’m sure not a single Puerto Rican noticed) that “every once in a while, you get hit. And you really got hit”. Not an egregious thing to say, but a little situational awareness and deft could go a long way.


His most gaucherie goof was when he mentioned the hurricane’s cost to the federal budget. He was attempting a joke, I hope, when after introducing the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, he told the audience that “You’ve thrown our budget a little bit out of whack” and that “We’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico”. If there’s one thing that I’ve realized about President Trump, it’s that he’s never deliberately funny, at least never publicly so. You’d have to examine closely his age-old Comedy Central Roast to refute this fact. And on the rare occurrence that he is, I can assure you, he isn’t being funny in a self-effacing way. Some people just lack the comedic flare, and to Trump’s remark, no one laughed.


When asked how the Puerto Rican people had received him, the president contented himself in saying that only “Thank yous” were to be heard. Not even San Juan’s Mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz had a deprecation in store. You’ll recall that the two feuded with a bitter froideur from afar; President Trump repeatedly called out Cruz’s ingratitude and her inability to lead, while Cruz fumed about Trump’s slow response. They held a brief meeting, one which Cruz claimed was not particularly productive. Trump, seeing the situation different altogether, said that Cruz had “Come back a long way” and that “It’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done…In Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus. I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico…Whether it’s her (Cruz) or anybody else, they’re all starting to say it”.


If you believe it, it must be true. I think, given the circumstances, the administration is doing a markedly superior job in trying to salvage Puerto Rico, and, in the process, its bruised reputation.


The reality remains harrowing, though, and this will continue to be the sobering fact as President Trump takes his leave. At the time of this writing, only forty-seven percent of the country has access to potable water, and it could be a month before this statistic slips beyond a mere majority. Ninety-five percent are without power and again, within one month, authorities expect only twenty-five percent to have regained it. Only thirty-seven percent have cell-phone reception, a startlingly fact when you consider the island’s many secluded, campestral regions. There remains a frustrating dearth of truck drivers, whose vital job to distribute the influx of essential aid from the ports to the towns has been slowed. Only twenty-one of the island’s sixty-nine hospitals are operational, but the extent to which they can provide care is unknown. The island’s one hundred and forty shelters now house over eight thousand people (from both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Without electricity nor aid, this won’t be sustainable for long.


The USNS Comfort, a massive military barge housing one thousand hospital beds and twelve operating rooms, has been beckoned and will arrive in San Juan today. The vessel, which is used almost exclusively in times of war, will bring with it relief and essential supplies to the strained hospital systems on the ground. The vessel won’t completely substitute the sparse availability of medical care in more traditional facilities, but it will offer medical staffs a desperately-needed complement to their own exhausted efforts. Also, concerning the seas, the Jones Act has been suspended temporarily, which is a Revolutionary-era maritime moratorium on foreign ships entering national ports. So long as this act is stayed, neighboring countries, if they’re so inclined, will be able to offer assistance as well.


Doubtless, the coming weeks will be arduous, but the progress is promising. Puerto Rico’s plight doesn’t end, but the situation surely has improved since the administration’s early false start. Hopefully, President Trump and the nation-at-large have realized that Puerto Rico is much more than an island “surrounded by water…big water…ocean water” somewhere in the sea beneath our noses.

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