A new investigation by Politico this week proves what many in Puerto Rico have known for months: that President Trump and his administration paid far less attention to the island following Hurricane Maria last September than they had other places in the United States following similar tragedies — namely Texas after Hurricane Harvey.
According to the report, which culled information from an array of public reports, FEMA records, and those involved in disaster response, Trump and his officials dug deep into their pockets and pooled all available resources after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas last August. The hurricane inundated several major cities and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings. At least 103 people were killed, 68 of whom died as a result of the hurricane’s direct effects.
However, a month later, when Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, Trump’s response was markedly different: whereas Texas was granted $141.8 million in individual assistance funding, for instance, Puerto Rico, which suffered a far more drastic fate, received a small fraction of that, with only $6.2 million for individual assistance.
Though the damage incurred in Texas after Harvey was devastating, the fallout in Puerto Rico following Maria was utterly catastrophic. The hurricane not only flattened 80 percent of the island’s agriculture and laid waste to its roads, bridges, and homes, it also wiped out Puerto Rico’s power grid, leaving all 3.5 million residents without electricity. Nearly all of the island was left without phone service and half the population was left without potable water. Hospitals were plunged into darkness as the death toll climbed.
To date, authorities believe the total cost to repair the island’s decimated electrical grid could reach up to $94 billion. Although the official number of fatalities was estimated at a little over 100, Puerto Rican officials say the real death toll may actually be closer to 1,000.
In the face of such devastation, Trump’s interest seemed to wane.
“We have the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. We go anywhere, anytime we want in the world, and [in Puerto Rico] we didn’t use those assets the way they should have been used,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led the disaster response efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, told Politico.
EXCLUSIVE: A POLITICO investigation shows the Trump administration — and the president himself – was more aggressive in responding to Texas than to Puerto Rico after last fall’s devastating hurricanes https://t.co/6daWibzkjY pic.twitter.com/80jJcLm0hK
— POLITICO (@politico) March 27, 2018
While the fact that Trump apparently cared less about Puerto Rico than other disaster areas is hardly a surprise to anyone keeping up with the island’s recovery efforts, seeing that stark discrepancy on paper is jarring.
According to Politico, within six days of Harvey making landfall in Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved the aforementioned $141.8 million in “individual assistance” to hurricane victims; within nine days, it had supplied 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to the Houston region, which saw some of the worst flood damage. In the first week and a half following the hurricane, the government was able to provide 30,000 emergency personnel and had deployed 73 helicopters capable of bringing residents supplies and transporting victims.
By contrast, rescue and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico were severely lacking: within the first week and a half after Maria made landfall, FEMA had approved the relatively meager $6.2 million in individual assistance for hurricane victims and supplied 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water, and around 5,000 tarps to the entire island. It took nine days for 10,000 emergency personnel to respond to the crisis and three weeks for the U.S. Northern Command to deploy more than 70 rescue and supply helicopters. Approvals on contracts and federal relief applications continue to move at a snail’s pace.
“We are being treated as second-class citizens,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a recent interview with Fox News. “Why is it the same process in Florida or in Texas takes a week, and in Puerto Rico it takes four months?”
Trump’s personal response to the two scenarios also varied wildly. According to Politico’s Danny Vinik, Trump visited Houston twice in the week after the hurricane, but didn’t visit Puerto Rico for 13 days after the storm hit. He also posted three times as many tweets about Harvey as he did Maria. Behind the scenes, Vinik wrote, Trump appeared more concerned about how his administration would look in the media than he was about the actual crisis itself.
The ignorance with which Trump went about responding to the situation in Puerto Rico — and his continued apathy — has angered residents still suffering from the hurricane’s after-effects.
“I don’t understand how the government thinks that Puerto Rico needs no more help. My mother’s home, she just got electricity two days ago,” Maria Beri, member of New York Communities for Change (NYCC), told ThinkProgress at a rally outside of FEMA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters this month.
She continued, “It’s alarming the way the government has responded so slowly. Even in my family, people from FEMA have visited, and nobody qualified [for assistance]. There’s always some excuse — they don’t have titles, they don’t have certain paperwork. … It’s a humanitarian crisis. All those technicalities should be put aside. They have a need for help right then and there. And they haven’t gotten it so far.”
Puerto Ricans have long insisted that the response to their struggles has been disproportionately lax, despite officials in the U.S. mainland arguing otherwise — around 16 percent of the island is still without power and clean drinking water is still hard to come by in some areas.
In January, for instance, FEMA officials wrote a letter to Puerto Rico stating that, despite its ongoing struggles, the island had too much cash on hand to qualify for an emergency assistance loan. Gerardo Portela, executive director of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF), responded, saying that the refusal meant Puerto Rico would be forced to lend money to its own public utility companies to stay afloat — money that was intended for recovery work.
“These public corporations are facing severe liquidity problems that threaten essential services to the people of Puerto Rico if their operations are interrupted for lack of immediate action,” he said in a statement.
Similar disparities have strained recovery efforts even further, a fact that hasn’t escaped the people living there. “Wheels are spinning, but things don’t seem to get off the ground,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told Democracy Now back in February: “[There’s been a] 55 percent increase in suicide rates, which tells you the mental state where people are at because of the dire situation and living conditions that we’re still in.”
The trickle-down effect from that indifference has affected Puerto Rican residents on a more personal level — one less covered by the media, but inescapable for the people who call the island home.
“Recovery here has been so slow that it’s affected people,” Toa Alta resident Michelle Rebollo told USA Today earlier in March. “Everyone’s tense. No one’s talking to one another. You see it in their faces: They’ve changed.”