President Donald Trump could do a lot more to help Puerto Rico —a US territory with 3.4 million American citizens.
Instead, he’s tweeting about the NFL and blaming the territory for its own problems.
Since Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico on Wednesday, the vast majority of the island still has no power and more than half of the homes have no drinking water. The Category 4 winds knocked out the power system and most of the island’s cell phone towers while flooding parts of the island with 30 inches of rain. The situation is dire.
In interviews about the challenges of turning the power back on, first responders on the ground said that the devastation is beyond anything they’ve ever seen.
“We can’t do this whole thing by ourselves,” said Ken Buell, director of emergency response for the US Department of Energy, who has dispatched staff to assess the damage.
Meanwhile, Trump largely spent his weekend fanning culture wars about protests at NFL games — a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
The president can’t single-handedly solve a major crisis like Maria, but there’s a lot he can do. He could, for example, ask Congress to pass a relief package for Puerto Rico, which would give FEMA and the island more money to rebuild. He could send more military resources to help with search and rescue operations. Instead he’s blaming Puerto Rico for its financial problems, fixated on NFL protests, and doesn’t plan to visit the island for another week.
President Trump declared the island a major disaster zone on Thursday, unlocking basic emergency aid coordinated through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But it’s hardly enough. So far, FEMA has authorized the minimal response to one of the biggest natural disasters to afflict American citizens.
“It’s complete devastation,” said Fairfax Country Fire Chief Richard Bowers, who deployed a team of 80 search-and-rescue experts to the island as part of the federal response.
While this is a similar (initial) federal response that played out after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, emergency workers say the devastation in Puerto Rico is far worse and the obstacles are far greater.
The island’s governor has begged for more federal help, but Trump has shown little interest in sending extra resources to the island. He hasn’t even visited Puerto Rico six days after the storm hit, which presidents normally do immediately after declaring a federal disaster zone. On Tuesday, he announced that he would visit in a week —two weeks after the storm hit. The president showed after Harvey and Irma that he can do a lot more for Puerto Rico than he is doing now.
Trump isn’t pushing Congress for money
The thing Puerto Rico needs most right now is money. Getting the power back on the island is going to be an enormous — and expensive — task. And it’s one that current electrical crews on the island don’t have the resources to fix.
“I have never seen anything quite like this before,” said Buell, of the Department of Energy, who has five workers on the island to assess damage to the electric system.
About 80 percent of the island’s transmission lines are wrecked, and 100 percent of power lines that connect electricity to homes and businesses are down, he said.
“This is a big deal,” said Buell. “That’s billions of dollars [in damage].”
Puerto Rico doesn’t have that kind of money. It’s going to require Congress to pass a relief package to free up more federal dollars to fix the island’s infrastructure problems. But first, the White House needs to send a request to Congress for the money. Trump hasn’t even gotten that started. After Harvey hit Texas, Trump asked Congress for $8 billion in extra relief within six days.
So far, the White House hasn’t announced plans to ask for similar help. Until that happens, federal workers are doing what they can to help Puerto Rico respond with the minimal amount of resources. But that won’t be enough to rebuild the island. It won’t even get the lights back on.
Emergency responders face enormous odds
The biggest problem emergency responders in Puerto Rico are facing right now is the lack of power. The island’s 1.5 million electricity users are still without power six days after the storm. The island’s electric grid is so old and so fragile that it could take months to restore power to the island. Without electricity, people in some parts of the island have been unable to get clean drinking water.
The US Army Corp of Engineers has sent teams to hook up generators to hospitals and other critical infrastructure across the island. But it’s been a slow process. Just getting generators and fuel to the island was hard enough when the airport and major ports were shut down for days, says Gerardo Figueroa, a power systems technician with the US Army Corp of Engineers.
Over the weekend, Army Corp technicians helped get limited power to el Centro Médico, Puerto Rico’s largest public hospital, and fixed generators at a local water pumping station. They Army Corp is currently trying to install 60 industrial-strength generators to communities across the island on flatbed trucks, barges, and cranes. Getting information about what areas need the most help has been extremely difficult, said Figueroa, who spoke to Vox from San Juan Monday after getting limited cell phone reception.
“We haven’t responded to anything of this magnitude,” said Figueroa, who has about 21 workers focused on getting power to critical facilities. “We’ll be here until the power is back on, however long that takes.”
While the Army Corp’s work is essential, the division is not responsible for getting power restored to private homes. That will require much more federal action — and money. All the utility poles, wires, and transmission lines need to be shipped in. Then crews need to install them.
The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, traveled to the island with about a dozen workers from the state’s public utility company. The head of the New York Public Power Authority said they are in “triage” mode on the island, and are trying to help the local utility company get federal help.
“They are US citizens,” said Gil Quiniones, the CEO of NYPA. “In time of need, especially in this situation of widespread destruction, we hope federal government will step up also.”
Without extra money, Puerto Rico will stay in the dark. Trump needs to push Congress to get it.
Trump is blaming Puerto Rico for its own problems
Not only is Trump barely doing enough for Puerto Rico, he’s essentially argued that Puerto Rico is at fault — and responsible for its problems. In a harsh series of tweets Monday evening, Trump felt compelled to mention the island’s financial problems.
It’s true that the government of Puerto Rico is a financial mess and could barely repair its own infrastructure. The island has been in a deep recession for more than a decade, in part because Congress let special tax breaks for US businesses who operate in Puerto Rico expire. The local government has also mismanaged its own finances, borrowing more money over the years than it could ever pay back.
Even so, the president’s message was pretty hard for Puerto Ricans to hear. The vast majority of people living on the island are not responsible for their government’s bad decisions, and should hardly be punished for them.
Trump could have easily called out city planners in Texas and Florida for their bad decisions. After all, Houston developed large swaths of the city on flood plains that make it hard to drain water. South Florida’s coastal cities are densely developed all the way to the shoreline, making it hard for engineers to stop streets from flooding after heavy rains or tidal floods.
Puerto Rico was facing its own unique problems before Hurricane Maria barreled through. The island, which is a US territory, filed for bankruptcy-like protection earlier this summer, and is in the process of restructuring its debt. The public utility company, known as PREPA, was also in a severe state of financial distress.
PREPA had relied on selling bonds to pay for the imported oil it burned at its power plants for decades. By 2014, it could no longer pay its creditors, and couldn’t borrow more money to buy fuel. The utility company ended up making a deal with its Wall Street creditors to restructure $5.7 billion of its total $9 billion debt. As part of the agreement, PREPA was supposed to modernize its ancient electric system, which had fallen into disrepair.
In July, PREPA defaulted on a $170 million interest payment to bondholders. Not only does PREPA not have money to invest in renewable, modern energy systems, it could barely repair and maintain its current system.
The government of Puerto Rico can no longer borrow money, and that’s going to seriously complicate emergency relief on the island in the coming weeks and months.
Based on his tweets, President Trump doesn’t seem inclined to help Puerto Rico more than it already has, which is the bare minimum. What he may not realize, however, is that Puerto Ricans don’t have to stay on the island. They can just get on a plane and move to the United States. Since the recession started, thousands have already moved to Central Florida. If 3.4 million more decide to make that move, they will remember what the federal government did for them — and didn’t do for them — when the next election comes.
Trump could push the military to do more
With few hospitals getting enough power in Puerto Rico, it’s baffling that the president hasn’t sent more military help to the island.
Questions have been swirling about why the Navy has not deployed the USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed naval ship with a trauma unit and X-ray machines. In 2005, the ship was sent to New Orleans to treat victims of Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, it arrived in Haiti after the large earthquake killed more than 200,000 people. The Department of Defense did not respond to specific questions from Vox about why the USNS comfort has not been deployed to Puerto Rico.
Here is what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted about that on Monday:
Meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, has been pleading the federal government for more help. He has asked for more resources from the Pentagon, such as helicopters and planes, to get help to people faster. The Defense Department told Politico that it sent six Navy helicopters and three marine planes. The department also told Vox that a naval ship, the USS Kearsarge, has been deployed to Puerto Rico, where it has delivered 22,000 pounds of supplies and several medical evacuations.
The federal government’s current, bare-bones response in Puerto Rico is completely insufficient to address the island’s humanitarian crisis. For one, FEMA needs to expand its mission in Puerto Rico to include more extensive work on the island’s public utilities, which is known as Category F assistance. That level of response was authorized in Texas a few weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit. Puerto Rico will certainly need it, and Congress will need to approve a similar — if not larger — relief package for Puerto Rico.
At the very least, Trump could get more media attention on Puerto Rico. He visited Texas twice after the recent storm and went to Tampa, Florida, once. Both tours led to more coverage of the disasters, which in turn helps trigger more private donations for disaster relief efforts. It also puts pressure on Congress to pass a relief package.
Yet the president seems to be in no rush to get more help to Puerto Rico. By the time he visits the island next week, it may be too late for some islanders.
Staff writer Alex Ward contributed to this report.