Since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico one month ago, President Trump has made a number of bizarre statements, typically via Twitter, about the federal government’s obligations to relief efforts, the status of relief efforts and the Americans living in Puerto Rico. Although the statements were often incorrect and at times profoundly offensive, I tried to concentrate on the disaster relief mission and hoped that he too would take on this mission with a greater sense of obligation – rather than the cavalier manner in which he approaches public relations.
Yet for reasons none of us can understand, he has called into question the federal government’s commitment to supporting the long-term recovery for Puerto Rico. He has tweeted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the first responders in Puerto Rico can’t stay there forever and has repeated this many times since. Of course, the federal responders have only been there for less than four weeks – hardly forever. But the president’s eagerness to high-tail it out of Puerto Rico came as a surprise since just last month his FEMA administrator declared to the people of Texas after Hurricane Harvey hit that “FEMA is going to be there for years.” Why a commitment to Texas but not Puerto Rico?
As we all know, the recovery has barely begun in Puerto Rico: 78 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without electricity, 28 percent are without water and access to food and fuel is still limited. Worse yet, we heard last week that people in Puerto Rico, desperate for water, have been forced to resort to pump water from drinking wells located at a Superfund site, despite warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Needless to say, the president’s threats were of no consolation to the people of Puerto Rico, whom the president must realize are our fellow American citizens. While anyone can guess what is going on in the president’s mind, it is beyond comprehension that he is champing at the bit to get the federal government out of Puerto Rico and leave its people to somehow recover and rebuild on their own. It would be tragic if the president has made some sort of political calculus that helping Puerto Rico is of no benefit – or worse.
Responding to and recovering from disasters takes time, it takes commitment, and it takes transparency. Earlier this month, media outlets reported that FEMA was not providing consistent information about the status of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico on its website. There were also disturbing stories that official figures regarding the number of Hurricane Maria-related deaths may be unknown or not being reported accurately. It seems that the president and the administration is participating in a nonstop spin campaign, desperate to assure everyone they are doing a fantastic job.
This may seem obvious to most, but we must be sure we have a federal government that is forthright and candid with the American public about the state of recovery in Puerto Rico, particularly because that information is necessary to understand the nature of federal resources that will be required to help it recover. I was able to visit Puerto Rico earlier this month – and it is clear that the real story of what is happening there is not coming through.
In fact, every bit of news coming from Puerto Rico over the past month points to a woefully inadequate federal response and a humanitarian crisis. I, along with my colleagues in Congress, have implored the Trump administration to bring all federal resources to bear and establish a rebuilding task force that will help the areas affected by this season’s hurricanes build back stronger. This has still not happened. Instead we receive near daily tweets from the president blaming the Puerto Rican people for their predicament and questioning the federal government’s commitment to Puerto Rico’s recovery.
President Trump must shift his focus off of Twitter to the people of Puerto Rico and confirm his commitment to the immediate response and long-term recovery efforts. Americans are Americans, regardless of the language they speak, the color of their skin, or whether they can vote in a presidential election. And all Americans deserve the same level commitment from the president.
Those of us in Congress are eager to work with him in the months and years to come as we work to help Puerto Rico recover from this horrific disaster. Tweets cannot change the facts on the ground. I urge the president not to let this people of this nation live through another Hurricane Katrina under his watch.