Bringing Paper Towels to a Flood

By Jessica Mulligan, PhD and Adriana Garriga-López, PhD

The President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday, October 3rd, two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island. He began with a rambling session at the Muñiz Air National Guard Base with no prepared remarks but copious boasts about how much had been accomplished. He then went on a helicopter ride and visited the wealthy San Juan suburb of Guaynabo where even the residents wondered why he chose them over harder hit communities. Trump told people gathered in Guaynabo, “have a good time” and tossed paper towel rolls to the crowd, proclaiming “there’s a lot of love in this room.”

U.S. news outlets commented on Trump’s “lack of empathy,” recalling his kinder attitude towards relief efforts in Texas and Florida. What this “lack of empathy” framing misses is that Trump’s callous disregard for the well-being of Puerto Ricans was well received by his white supremacist and nativist base. Fox News claimed that the people of Puerto Rico were very happy with Trump’s visit and any claims to the contrary were “fake news.” Breitbart stirred up fears of a Puerto Rican exodus to swing states with headlines like: “Hurricane Maria Could Change the Politics of Puerto Rico, Florida, and America Forever”, but belittled public health concerns by focusing on Paul Krugman’s unsubstantiated claim that cholera is present. This reporting fosters racism, as revealed in the comments section.

The Trump administration is spinning the story--claiming that few lives were lost and that this disaster is not a “real catastrophe” like Katrina. This view is contradicted by the military’s claims that it does not have sufficient supplies to rebuild infrastructure. FEMA further confuses the issue by posting and then deleting statistics about the situation.

Fortunately, no one has to rely on official disinformation sources to track the devastation wrought by this unnatural disaster. Coalitions of activists and scholars in the diaspora and on the island have worked to document the aftermath of the storm, question the slow recovery, and link the island’s vulnerability to colonial abuses. Academics issued a collective statement denouncing the second class citizenship that has become so palpable. Others have pointed to the environmental inequalities and toxic dangers that Hurricanes Irma and Maria exacerbated.

Many are concerned that this crisis will be commandeered by disaster capitalists as an “opportunity” to carry out development schemes.[1] For example, the Education Secretary of Puerto Rico, Julia Keleher, has referred to the collapse of public education as an opportunity, citing the post Katrina model of educational reform as a positive guide. Under a federal education department led by Betsy Devos, whose chief qualification is her ability to privatize schools, Puerto Ricans can expect the continued gutting of public education. As in New Orleans, disaster capitalists may falsely claim to have a blank slate for rebuilding without regard to the history and culture of the people of Puerto Rico.[2]

Instead of disaster profiteering, what is needed is the sustainable and equitable rebuilding of infrastructure and institutions using local knowledges and community structures of solidarity not profit. Drawing on the lessons of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and other disasters exacerbated by misguided recovery efforts, the scholarly consensus is that recovery 1) should be directed by and responsive to locals, 2) should not come with strings attached (like having to pay for FEMA activities or thrusting people further into debt through loan programs), and 3) should reinvest in public infrastructure like food systems, the electric grid, clean energy, education, sanitation, and health care. So far, none of these things is happening in Puerto Rico in any sustained way. In these difficult times, help seems more likely to come from neighbors and friends than from the government.

Recovery efforts are hamstrung by a debt crisis that has devastated the public sector in the name of ensuring foreign investors are “made whole” instead of facing one of the risks of investment: losing money. The President has declared bankruptcy many times in his own business dealings, but Puerto Rico is statutorily unable to do the same. During his visit, Trump stated that “we must wipe out the debt,” but the White House walked back his comments the following day. The situation could lead to debt relief for Puerto Ricans, but not without a fight from Wall Street.

A forensic accounting is needed of how U.S. colonialism created vulnerabilities in Puerto Rico that increased the loss of life, decimated water and electric infrastructure, ruined people’s homes, disrupted education, and failed to prevent a public health crisis. This forensic accounting--which many have already begun--remembers and documents the dead. We cannot rely on very low official numbers. Instead, we must visit hospitals and morgues, interview pathologists, track down families, and document the lives that were lost in this unnatural disaster. Some areas of Puerto Rico are only now starting to establish contact and report on conditions, and the news is not good. There are many reports of people forced to bury dead loved ones in their backyards. Two deaths and nine cases of leptospirosis are confirmed, as well as outbreaks of conjunctivitis and mange. Death counts will undoubtedly continue to rise.

For now, we are not buying the claim that the recovery is a success. The only people who seem to be “having a good time” are U.S. contractors drinking and eating in the touristic hotels of Old San Juan. Trump has had many opportunities to change the course of the emergency response; to bring energy, resources, and compassion to the work of saving lives. Instead, he brought paper towels to this still-rising flood of human suffering.

[1] Klein, Naomi, 2006. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Picador, New York.

[2] Adams, Vincanne, 2013. Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. Duke University Press; Tompkins, Christien, 2017. Reconstructing Race: New Orleans Reform as Experimental Labor. Dissertation, University of Chicago.

Jessica Mulligan is Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at Providence College. Her research explores insurance, finance, and health reform in the United States and Puerto Rico. She is co-editor of Unequal Coverage: The Experience of Health Care Reform in the United States (NYU Press, 2017) and the author of Unmanageable Care: An Ethnography of Health Care Privatization in Puerto Rico (NYU Press, 2014).

Adriana Garriga-López is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Adriana’s work focuses on the public health effects of Puerto Rico’s political subjugation to the United States, with an emphasis on contagious disease. She was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico.​

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