One month after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Donald Trump declared his administration’s response “a 10.” While Trump was basking in the glow of his 10-out-of-10 score from the Oval Office, one-third of Puerto Ricans were without clean drinking water and the majority had no electricity. In the following months, more people died as a direct result of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath and a level of federal negligence that rivals the “response” to Hurricane Katrina.
The human cost
Hurricane Maria devastated millions of Puerto Ricans by destroying homes, businesses, and the vast majority of its infrastructure. Insurance money paid out for business and residential claims only comes to 40% of the expected total, while roughly 135,000 residents have relocated to the mainland U.S. since the storm. Out of 45,000 small businesses on the island, 5,000 to 7,000 remain closed while major chains like Walmart and Walgreens have closed some of their locations permanently.
The death toll after Hurricane Maria is alarming. Between September and October 2017, over 1,000 “excess deaths” occurred, including casualties from infection, respiratory failure, and other harms citizens dealt with after the storm. Even in 2018, people continue to die due to hospital closures after the storm.
Just because Trump has moved on from Puerto Rico does not mean the administration’s “relief effort” on the island — home to over 3 million American citizens — has suddenly improved. As of March 19, 9% of electric customers were still without power in Puerto Rico.
This is not typical. According to CNN, virtually all power was back in Texas just 19 days after Hurricane Harvey left over 300,000 people without electricity. Similarly, Hurricane Irma left 6.2 million customers without power in Florida, and in just two weeks it was restored.
The saga of Puerto Rico’s power restoration starts with Whitefish Energy, a firm with two full-time employees that won a $300 million contract to rebuild the Puerto Rico’s shattered electric grid. Whitefish Energy reportedly signed the contract documents with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) without power, using cell phones for light. Under criticism from Congress and the public for failing to restore power after six weeks, Whitefish lost the contract with PREPA. FEMA refused to commit money and made clear that it did not approve the Whitefish contract. After Whitefish was fired by PREPA, they stopped working over a week early due to unpaid labor. While Whitefish was working to restore power in November, power generation actually declined for a period due to various power failures.
Puerto Rico requested $94 billion from Congress to cover the $100 billion in damages Hurricane Maria caused, but only about $50 billion was approved. Congress sent $23 billion in direct funding, while FEMA spent $6 billion, according to the AP. Of the $23 billion, Puerto Rico only received $1.27 billion for its federal assistance nutrition program and $430 million for infrastructure. Six months after the storm hit, hardly any of the aforementioned funds have reached Puerto Rico. A $4.7 billion loan from the Treasury Department was approved for Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, but it was later reduced to $2 billion and none of it reached Puerto Rico. In March, 58 members of Congress signed a bicameral letter urging Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to make the full $4.7 billion loan available.
To deal with financial shortcomings and the island’s burgeoning debt, the Governor of Puerto Rico is planning to slash funds to municipalities and the University of Puerto Rico by $1.4 billion through 2023. The cuts, which would total $3.4 billion by 2023, will have profound implications for services offered by the government and for the citizens receiving them.
Trump declared victory in Puerto Rico, but as soon as the hurricane fell out of the news, Trump fell silent. The president has a duty to manage emergency response; in the case of Puerto Rico, he’s missing in action.
Trump is MIA in office
Consistently failing in his role as head of state — whether it’s ignoring victims of natural disasters and domestic terrorism, leaving key federal positions vacant, or disregarding national security threats — Donald Trump is an absent president, exposing us to danger.