“Usually, after something like this happens, people are out on the streets working immediately. But this time, the government’s response has been very slow,” Luis Rodriguez, a resident of Caguas, Puerto Rico, told The New York Times in October.
“The water comes and goes, comes and goes, and it’s just a trickle.”
More than 100 days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the United States still isn’t doing much to help. Some medical clinics remain in a state of emergency, access to safe water is still a concern, and nearly half of Puerto Rican residents are without power. The death toll has reached over one thousand people.
The massive disaster aid package expected to bring some relief has been caught up in politics and delayed due to debate over spending and immigration. The House of Representatives passed a $81 billion disaster funding package before the holiday break as a piece legislation separate from the continuing resolution that funds the government. Now, Senate Democrats are holding out a vote on the disaster package in the hopes of gaining leverage over the spending bill debate and including a DACA fix. Senate GOP leaders would need unanimous consent in order to fast-track the aid package on its own, which is unlikely. Hurricane-ravaged places like Texas, Florida, and especially Puerto Rico will have to wait until at least January 19th, when Congress has to yet again pass another budget to keep the government running.
The Trump administration has repeatedly touted its recovery efforts, asserting that the White House has been doing everything in its power to help Puerto Rico, but the island’s officials say otherwise. In an interview conducted 100 days after Maria, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz called President Donald Trump the “disaster-in-chief” as a result of his botched response to the crisis. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló said in a December interview Puerto Ricans felt as though they are “second-class citizens.”
How President George W. Bush handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is being likened to Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria, which many consider the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency. Rolling Stone notes Trump’s “callous response” to Hurricane Maria makes Bush’s response to Hurricane Maria look “statesman-like by comparison.”
Both storms were devastating, causing unspeakable damage to hundreds of thousands of American citizens; both presidents were incompetent and insensitive in their responses.
The bungled response
The executive response to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria was mishandled in ways that seemed designed chiefly to cast the president in a positive light. Trump excitedly threw rolls of paper towels at a crowd of desperate Puerto Ricans who had assembled to receive disaster aid, turning the event into a media circus. Bush flew over the devastated city of New Orleans in Air Force One for a self-serving photo opportunity.
Both Trump and Bush were away from Washington D.C. when the storms made landfall. Bush was 27 days into his vacation at his ranch in Texas, while Trump had jetted off to his private home in New Jersey. Bush declined to visit New Orleans immediately, while Trump spent the four days following the storm’s landfall in Puerto Rico tweeting threats at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and feuding with the National Football League over athletes’ protests during the national anthem. When he did acknowledge the devastation in Puerto Rico, he was quick to blame the territory’s debt and the island’s diminished electrical grid. Trump eventually visited the island to survey the recovery effort and meet with local officials — two weeks after the storm.
Trump also blamed food and water shortages on the islanders’ failure to self-organize, saying, “People don’t have drinking water. [But] we’ve delivered tremendous amounts of water. What you have to do, you have to have distribution of the water, but by the people on the island. We have massive amounts of water. We have massive amounts of food. But they have to distribute it. They have to do it. They have to distribute the food to the people on the island. What we’ve done, we now have military distributing food, something that really they shouldn’t have to be doing.”
Puerto Rican officials felt as though the response from the White House was a “disaster,” with very few citizens receiving assistance from the federal government in a timely manner.
When asked by a reporter how he would grade the White House’s response on a scale of 1 to 10 Trump replied, “I say it was a 10.”
Bush’s sluggish response to Katrina was also highly criticized. Applauding disgraced former FEMA director Michael Brown early on in recovery efforts and telling him he did a “heck of a job,” didn’t help either.
Brown, however, was also guilty of victim-blaming those affected by the storm. When asked about the Hurricane Katrina death toll, Brown responded that the victims bear some of the responsibility for their own situations.
“Unfortunately, that’s going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings,” Brown told CNN. “I don’t make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.”
Evacuating a major metropolitan area like New Orleans is no easy feat. Even with the help of the city government, if you’re disabled, elderly, or living below the poverty level, evacuation is a privilege.
The casual way these two presidents and their administrations easily blamed American citizens for events out of their own control is notable — especially since both storms disproportionately impacted racial minorities.
During NBCUniversal’s “A Concert for Hurricane Relief,” Kanye West went off-script and made the subtext of Katrina, text. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” he told viewers.
In 2005, black individuals made up 60 percent of the population in New Orleans and many felt as though that was the reason for such a delayed response. A Gallup poll from late 2005 found that six out of every 10 black New Orleans residents said if most of Katrina’s victims were white, relief would have arrived sooner.
For the victims of Hurricane Maria, their frustrations are colonial, deeply embedded in the history of the country and it’s relationship with the United States. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, yet have no representation in Congress and have always felt as though they are second-class citizens as a result. Hurricane Maria exposed the tender nerve of colonialism Puerto Ricans have faced for decades and forced the United States to deal with their past transgressions in the public eye.
When President Trump visited Puerto Rico two weeks after the storm, he said only 16 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, favorably comparing it to the 1,833 fatalities officially attributed to Hurricane Katrina.
“You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together,” Trump said of the death toll. “Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.”
If Puerto Ricans are to believe their government, 64 people have died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The island’s Department of Public Safety, however, said in late October that there have been more than 900 cremations in Puerto Rico since the storm. These deaths aren’t classified by the government as a “storm-related death” because those cremated were designated to have died due to natural causes. But the storm had created dire living conditions on the island: weeks and months without air-conditioning in 90-degree weather and limited access to safe drinking water. The New York Times compared the number of deaths in Puerto Rico for each day in 2017 with the average of the number of deaths for the same days in 2015 and 2016 and found the death toll to be around 1,052.
The official Hurricane Katrina death toll is similarly mired in controversy. Even more than a decade later, no one is exactly sure just how many people died in Katrina. The official count of 1,833 is contested by multiple agencies for a number of reasons, largely because of the way deaths were classified. Would a heart-attack caused by stress and lack of care one month after the storm still be attributed to Katrina?
In the days after the storm made landfall, many observers’ estimates put the number of deaths in the thousands. Then-Mayor Ray Nagin said the death toll in the city could be as high as 10,000. A FEMA simulation of what would happen if a similar hurricane struck the area had put the number at more than 60,000.
The power outages & devastation
Puerto Rican officials called the devastation on the island “apocalyptic.” 170 MPH winds destroyed buildings while water flooded the streets due to damage to the Guajataca Dam. Grocery stores, hospitals, and homes quickly ran out of food and water.
— Ricardo Rossello (@ricardorossello) September 24, 2017
All of this unfolded while most of the island was without power due to the failure of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.
Trump was quick to blame Puerto Rico for its outdated grid, saying at a press conference, “Their electrical grid was destroyed before the hurricanes got there… it was in very bad shape, was not working.”
Puerto Rico was well aware of the island’s issues with its power grid, as illustrated by a scathing report commissioned 10 months before Hurricane Maria by the Puerto Rican Electrical Power Authority (PREPA) which warned that the energy infrastructure was facing a “crisis.” Funding prevented PREPA from conducting simple tasks like pruning the trees that topple power lines during storms. The company filed for bankruptcy before the storm hit.
After Katrina, there also massive power outages across the state. In Louisiana 900,000 people were left without power for weeks. This was largely the result of over 50 failures of levees and flood walls in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The levee failure was not completely caused by the massive storm, but was the fault of primarily the United States Army Corps of Engineers who constructed the levees, according to a report in the peer-reviewed journal Water Policy.
Puerto Rico’s notoriously corrupt government-run electric utility signed a contract with Whitefish Energy, a tiny company in Montana with little experience in power restoration and ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. After the storm, Whitefish was awarded a $300 million contract to rebuild the country’s electric grid. As part of the contract, the company ended up charging Puerto Rico more than double the regular wages for utility crew line workers and higher-than-normal daily meal rates. Puerto Rico cancelled the contract in late October.
And when Hurricane Katrina left thousands abandoned by their government, private military contractors descended upon New Orleans to capitalize off of their misfortune. Blackwater USA, a military security group best known for guarding American diplomats in Iraq, arrived on the scene of the disaster just 36 hours after the levees broke — before most other federal agencies. Eventually, the group secured a $73 million contact to protect FEMA staff helping with the Katrina recovery operation. Blackwater enjoyed a close relationship with the Republican party: Blackwater’s then-CEO Erik Prince gave more than $80,000 to the Republican National Committee before Bush’s 2000 victory and even interned for Bush’s father, President George H.W Bush. Blackwater’s purpose in New Orleans was to defend the city against “looters,” a term used at the time to describe black people forced to scavenge for resources wherever they could in order to live.
Two devastating storms laid bare the ways in which marginalized Americans are treated by the federal government when they need help most. Bush has since acknowledged his response to Katrina was severely lacking in his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, Bush wrote: “I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions; it was that I took too long to decide.”
Trump has stopped tweeting about Puerto Rico but that doesn’t mean the situation is resolved. While the impact of the storm has largely faded from the headlines, much of the island remains in crisis. The response to Maria will undoubtably be viewed as an acute moral failure — and it is growing by the day.