Mr. President: Puerto Rico Is, Indeed, Living a “Real Catastrophe”

October 4, 2017
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

Recently, President Trump visited Puerto Rico to meet with federal and Commonwealth officials coordinating the relief and recovery effort in the wake of Hurricane María.  At an Air National Guard base, the president held a briefing where he congratulated the first responders on the ground there. Following that, President Trump toured neighborhoods and a church, where he threw paper towels at the crowd, much as a celebrity would at a sporting event.

I know well the neighborhoods he toured, as they are in my hometown of Guaynabo (goo-aye-nah-bow), a relatively wealthy city of almost 98,000 inhabitants near San Juan.  As I said in a previous blog post, I am relieved that my city–at least the part where my neighborhood lies–was not among the most heavily hit, yet most areas have not been so lucky.

President Trump would have done well to have visited not just Guaynabo, but the hardest-hit areas where a real catastrophic humanitarian crisis—contrary to what he implied yesterday in Puerto Rico— is indeed ongoing.

He could have seen, for example, a destroyed bridge connecting the rural towns of Morovis and Ciales, or a flooded residential subdivision in the eastern coast, where the storm surge came in with force. Not too far from Guaynabo is the San Juan working class neighborhood of Puerto Nuevo, which was heavily flooded as well. Or further inland in the mountainous region of the central and eastern Cordillera Central, he could have witnessed the ravaging defoliation of the El Yunque tropical forest, a vital part of the rich ecosystem of Puerto Rico. An aerial survey of the Levittown suburb in the northern plains would have shown him the effects of widespread flooding in one of the largest suburbs in the Commonwealth.

Even before a visit, just checking with NASA would have given the president an accurate idea of the scope of damage in the San Juan area, as this damage assessment to buildings done with remotely-sensed imagery shows, or the widespread loss of electricity. Maybe that would have made President Trump think twice before declaring that due to the latest official death toll (34 so far, but likely to rise), the situation in Puerto Rico is not “a real catastrophe like Katrina.

President Trump responds with scorn to the humanitarian plight of Puerto Ricans

But during the visit to the territory, the president did not go to any of the hard-hit areas, had nothing but scorn for the people of Puerto Rico, and seemed to be more worried about money than about the lives and well-being of 3.4 million U.S. citizens.

In one of his first remarks during the visit, President Trump claimed that Puerto Rico was “throwing our [federal] budget out of whack,” an assistance that so far totals $35 million dollars. In contrast, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of national Hispanic organizations in the U.S., has called on Congress and the President to, among other things, provide $70 billion dollars for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The president’s visit does nothing to assuage the fears among Puerto Ricans that Puerto Rico will be left behind in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and María.

A few days before his visit, President Trump suggested that Puerto Ricans want “everything to be done for them” in relation to emergency aid and relief. That assertion can’t escape being lumped together with the long-standing racist social construction of Puerto Ricans—especially those of African descent—as lazy and wilfully dependent on the government. That characterization is also patently not true, as the massive mobilization of both Puerto Ricans in the territory, along with the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, demonstrates anything but lazy complacency in the falsehood that Puerto Ricans expect the federal government to do everything for them. I know because over the last few weeks, I have been part of relief efforts in my local community and witnessed the solidarity of people everywhere—both of Puerto Rican origin, and otherwise.

The president’s unfortunate comments were followed by a personal attack on the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, for her very candid rebuttal of the acting head of Homeland Security’s comments that the federal response to the Puerto Rico crisis was a “good news story” when thousands of people still have no running water or electricity.

The president has an obligation to provide aid and comfort to millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

The demand for immediate action made by Puerto Ricans and many in the U.S. from Congress and the President is the demand of 3.4 million American citizens (and another 100,000 in the USVI) to which both Congress and the President have an obligation to provide for their well-being and safety in the face of such a catastrophe.

President Trump’s callousness and harsh words for Puerto Ricans sharply contrasts with the swift approval of an emergency aid package for Texas and Florida in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

I watch these events unfold, and the response of Congress, but especially of President Trump, with a mix of anger and sadness. It is simply incomprehensible that almost two weeks after Hurricane María made landfall, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands still have not received an emergency aid package to speed-up recovery and avert worsening of the humanitarian crisis unfolding there.

That is why I joined together with my colleagues at Voces Verdes – Latino Leadership in Action to elevate our voices to demand that Congress and the president provide an initial emergency spending package for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. We are not alone in this demand. The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) just sent a letter to Congress and the President with other demands in addition to the emergency relief package.

Multiple sectors have mobilized to aid Puerto Rico in recovering from the devastation and misery brought by this hurricane season. It is inspiring to see the way private individuals, including Puerto Rican musicians and actors, have stepped in to help. However, they should not have had to take on something that should be the responsibility of the president and Congress. Their solidarity and quick action contrasts sharply with the victim-blaming rhetoric the President has engaged in.

The president is supposed to be a unifying voice in times of national emergencies. Instead, President Trump has chosen to visit ravaged Puerto Rico to make a mockery of human suffering in the face of catastrophic extreme weather. The federal agencies he commands need the resources to continuing doing their job adequately (as they have been doing within the limitations of the aid that has been provided) to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That job can be best done if the president and Congress direct the adequate resources to FEMA and other federal agencies. His scorn and jarring tone with people who have lost everything make that task even more monumentally difficult than it already is.

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Posted in: Climate Change

Tags: Puerto Rico

About the author

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Dr. Declet-Barreto earned a Ph.D. in environmental social sciences, M.A. and B.S. degrees in geography, and an associate’s degree in geographic information systems, from Arizona State University. At UCS, his research maps, analyzes, and finds solutions to the unequal human health and livelihood impacts of environmental hazards, particularly those exacerbated by climate change.