By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
I remember because I will always love New Orleans. All the residents of the Gulf Coast, or anyone who loved New Orleans – and who was old enough to remember August 29th, 2005 – has mourned the day ever since. We remember the day Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, creating untold calamity. Weeks afterward, images of black families screaming on rooftops filled television screens, as rising floodwaters threatened a watery death below.
Katrina took the lives of almost 2,000 people, many poor and black.
It is because the worst harm is always suffered by those struggling the most that makes Donald Trump’s statements and behavior after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico so unconscionable. Trump has displayed a mindboggling level of disrespect and lack of empathy toward poor Americans facing life-threatening hardships. Insofar as Trump feels frustrated because relief efforts in Puerto Rico failed to meet his expectation, his appropriate response as the President should have been deep sympathy and concern for the sufferers. Instead, his attitude since the category 4 hurricane struck Puerto Rico in mid- September has been to display annoyance –more than concern. His tweets and his language truly call into question his basic understanding of human decency. The majority of Puerto Ricans still lack electricity. Forty percent lack running water. Health care and telephone and internet services are almost non-existent.
Did Trump respond to the crisis in way that would lift spirits, during a time in which millions of the disenfranchised needed hope most of all? No. Trump lashed out against Puerto Rican political officials who issued pleas for expedited humanitarian assistance. It appeared that Trump’s disconnect from the suffering of the people couldn’t grow worse. Yet it did. When Trump finally visited the devastated island, his first public comments appeared disjointed. He ramblingly downplayed the death toll. “What is your death count so far? Seventeen?” he said, and he complained that the cost of the relief mission was throwing the national budget “out of whack.”
Trumps’ lack of decorum led a former Puerto Rican Governor, Anibal Acevido, to lament “ He was laughing at us.” It is hard to know whether or not the president was “laughing” at Puerto Ricans when during the same press conference he scoffed that Hurricane Maria didn’t compare with “ a real catastrophe” like Katrina.
Nobody who had personally experienced Katrina would downplay the terrible impact of any hurricane. The stories emerging from Puerto Rico sadly resemble the most horrific post-Katrina narratives
New Orleans residents spent months grappling with the fact that the city lacked an adequate healthcare infrastructure after Katrina. Today Puerto Rico faces the same stressful and cruel situation. Heartbreaking stories show how residents struggle to find the care they desperately need, stories like that of Jose L Cruz, who needs regular dialysis treatments. Hospital patients, such as Cruz, have had their treatment hours drastically reduced because of the electricity shortage. Hospitals in Puerto Rico have been described as operating on a “revolving door” policy.
Trump’s words and attitude encouraged indifference by implying that life on the island right now “isn’t that bad.” Trump could at the very least have devoted his speech, and his actions to the single-minded goal of keeping the death toll as low as he claimed it was. He has not commented on the reality, that the death toll in Puerto Rico has risen. It now stands officially at 48 dead.
The insinuation that impoverished people of color “want everything done for them” is a classic racist trope. We heard it during Katrina and we hear it now from white supremacist leaders who only seek to divide Americans from each other.
Trump cavalierly brings up Katrina to suit his own convenience. But he doesn’t mention that Katrina was a man-made tragedy, where the death toll was extraordinary high because of the failure of the Gulf Coast levee system that was shoddily maintained by the federal government.
Like any lover of New Orleans who remembers Katrina, I know that the hurricane displaced thousands who suffered losses so great they never recovered. Many were never able to return to the city.
No hurricane should be an opportunity to mock the poor. It is a sad moment when the President of the United States blatantly engages in poverty shaming, cynically directed against people of color.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change.