As President Trump visits Puerto Rico, he has a lot to answer for, given his tone-deaf tweets from his Bedminster, N.J., golf outing, the incredible claim that Puerto Rico is a “good-news story” by his acting homeland security secretary, Elaine Duke, and his administration’s slow response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, widely recognized for his skill in stepping up the George W. Bush administration’s Katrina relief efforts, was unequivocal about the inadequate federal response in his recent NPR interview: “Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina. And we had 20,000 federal troops, 20 ships, and 40,000 National Guard.” So far, there are only about 2,200 federal troops in Puerto Rico.
Drinking water has been scarce on the islands of Vieques and Culebra. Of hospitals, 51 of 69 are running but are on rolling blackouts. Some 55 percent of Puerto Ricans still lack drinking water, and lines where people can receive gas stretch have stretched as far as a quarter-mile or longer.
The president seemed wholly unaware of the reality that 3.4 million of our fellow U.S. citizens, more than the number of residents in 21 states and the District of Columbia, are engulfed in a humanitarian crisis given his equivocating response about the potential cost of relief efforts: “The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!” Or his tweet implying that Puerto Rico’s debt could affect relief efforts: “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble.” Given the humanitarian crisis, the president’s public comments are a sadly typical Trumpian distraction from the urgent task ahead.
The legislative and policy priorities couldn’t be clearer.
First, this should be an all-hands-on-deck moment for every federal agency. Senate Democrats have done the president’s homework for him and laid out eight specific steps the administration should take to direct the relief capacities at federal agencies toward Puerto Rico.
Second, Congress should pass an aid package that helps communities in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas, Florida and other affected communities. In designing that aid package, Congress should learn the lessons of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and build back better; i.e., build smarter, stronger infrastructure that is going to be able to stand up to extreme weather. It’s worth asking: How many more times does a community have to be ravaged for some legislators to learn their lesson and help vulnerable locations defend against destructive weather?
Finally, Trump might try to marshal the experience he gained in his six business bankruptcies to help Puerto Rico’s fiscal situation. With 80 percent of electric distribution and 100 percent of electric transmission infrastructure damaged or destroyed on the island, it’s time for the power authority’s hedge-fund-vulture bondholders to take a long-overdue haircut. You could even say Trump owes it to Puerto Rico. Rolling Stone pointed out that Trump “went belly up in Puerto Rico in 2015, when a Trump-branded condo/golf development declared bankruptcy, costing island taxpayers nearly $33 million. The financing had come from Puerto Rico’s public-funded tourism bureau.”
As the president visits the ravaged island, after a weekend of self-pitying tweets about his media coverage, he would do well to abandon his Trump First agenda and finally put the people of Puerto Rico who need his help first.
This piece was originally published at the Washington Post.