Puerto Rico is facing wide-scale humanitarian disaster following a brutal hurricane, but President Trump doesn’t seem to paying the situation much attention. Instead, he’s turned his focus to other issues — namely, Black athletes protesting police violence.
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico last week, killing at least 15 people and devastating the U.S. territory. The storm uprooted buildings and laid waste to the island’s infrastructure. The worst isn’t over — a large dam on the Guajatacata River is set to burst, putting the 70,000 people who live near the river’s flood plain in danger as well. Officials have warned area residents to evacuate, noting that the dam’s collapse is imminent and those who stay are likely to face catastrophe.
Additionally, many Puerto Ricans on the mainland have so far been unable to connect with family members on the island due to minimal cell service. On the island itself, 85 percent of power lines are down, a situation that could take up to six months to fix. In some areas, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all homes have been destroyed; running water, meanwhile, is considered a luxury.
Worsening matters is a persistent sense of injustice among local residents. Puerto Rico is home to 3.4 million people — more than North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and Alaska combined. All Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, although the island is technically a U.S. colony and Puerto Ricans registered to vote on the island cannot vote for president. That has served as a point of contention in Puerto Rico, and in June, 97 percent of the island voted to join the United States as a state, part of a desperate effort to attract mainland attention and help.
“If there’s an earthquake in Puerto Rico, who is going to send the help? The Americans! This is their land!” Gladys Martínez Cruz, 73, told the New York Times at the time. “We need someone who is going to support us, send us money. There’s a lot of hunger in Puerto Rico, even with the help we get.”
But the vote’s results failed to encourage Congress to act, something analysts said was unsurprising.
“I think it’s a useless exercise, because we have seen that the Trump administration and Congress have not showed the slightest interest in the process itself, much less the will of the people of Puerto Rico,” political analyst Nestor Duprey told the Times.
The White House’s lack of interest in Puerto Rico has become even more pronounced since the hurricane hit. The president has only loosely acknowledged the crisis unfolding on the island, telling reporters when asked that he would be paying a visit to survey the damage and offer support. At the same time, Trump has been obsessing over other things — most notably the National Football League, or NFL, and some players’ decision to take a knee during the national anthem.
While campaigning for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange in Alabama, Trump unexpectedly addressed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the National Anthem last year as a means of protesting police brutality.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump reportedly said. He later followed his comments with a series of tweets.
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” he wrote. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
In stark contrast, Trump’s only public acknowledgement of the situation in Puerto Rico came last Wednesday, in a single tweet. “We are with you and the people of Puerto Rico,” he tweeted at Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s governor. “Stay safe!”
Trump has also used his account to tweet repeatedly about the Republican efforts to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act, spending most of his time lobbing criticisms at fellow conservatives like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who said last week he would vote no on the latest repeal bill.
Puerto Rico’s current crisis has been worsened by a slate of other problems that have been plaguing the island — which is massively in debt — for years. With half the per capita income of the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi, Puerto Ricans live in relative poverty, relying on the mainland for assistance. In May, the island declared bankruptcy, the first time that a U.S. state or territory has taken such a measure.
This has left the island ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath of a vicious hurricane. The United States has so far deployed 4,000 U.S. Army Reserve members and 1,600 members of the National Guard to assist Puerto Rico. But in a phone interview Sunday night, Rosselló said residents need much more.
“We need more resources from the Department of Defense so we can get helicopters and resources,” the governor told Politico. “We know that there are capabilities in the surrounding areas, helicopters, planes and so forth. And our petition is for us to be able to use them.”
“Whatever relief package we have, whatever impact we have, we are U.S. citizens,” he added. “We shouldn’t be the lesser for it.”
As of Monday, Puerto Rico was still awaiting a federal disaster declaration for 24 municipalities. There are 78 municipalities in total.