In the best of times Puerto Rico suffers the pangs of poverty. The island’s 3.4 million residents struggle to keep afloat. Government teeters on collapse.
And life in the hurricane belt constantly threatens Puerto Rico’s tenuous grip on tranquility, making it one big storm away from disaster.
That storm struck last September when Hurricane Maria tore through the commonwealth’s heart, decimating power lines, homes, roads, bridges, hospitals — all the basics of life.
Four months later nearly a third of the island remains dark, nearly all of its hospitals are working under make-shift conditions, hundreds of schools are closed and the death toll rises as more sophisticated assessments are made.
The latest estimate for a complete restoration of power on the island is May, just in time for the 2018 hurricane season. Congress has been willing to provide funds for restoration of the power grid and general infrastructure, though a looming debate over a government shutdown could further hurt the reclamation effort.
Moved by the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, help has come from private donors and mainland utility companies. FPL has contributed light poles and manpower. Its latest contribution was 140 linemen who will help speed the re-electrification process.
The growing presence of Puerto Rican voters in Florida hasn’t gone unnoticed. Former Miami Beach mayor and gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine on Tuesday called the federal response to Maria “one of the most embarrassing moments in American history,” at a campaign appearance in Orlando.
Both Florida senators have been outspoken backers of help for Puerto Rico, along with a contingent of New York congressmen and women with heavy Puerto Rican constituencies.
A long held hope among many Puerto Ricans was statehood. The cry has broadened in face of the hurricane, though it appears unlikely.
A humanitarian collapse is unfolding almost within our sight in a U.S. territory.
While there is no shortage of rhetoric and loudly expressed sympathy for the Puerto Rican plight, neither is there a shortage of criticism.
From the moment Maria’s category four winds stopped blowing, it was evident that Puerto Rico was facing a disaster of epic proportions. It was equally evident that its residents — all U.S. citizens, by the way — would need help commensurate with the storm’s ferocity, and need it quickly.
They didn’t get it, at least as soon as it was needed and not in the magnitude it was promised.
President Trump explained the delay with a reminder that Puerto Rico was an island and thus hard to get to. To his credit, he traveled to the storm-tossed island four times, though his visits often accomplished only hard feelings.
Puerto Rico should be proud, he said in one press conference. With only 16 dead, Maria didn’t compare with “a real catastrophe like Katrina.”
That preliminary death toll was challenged by CNN, The New York Times and Puerto Rico’s bureau of vital statistics. Using more sophisticated tracking, it became clear that the number of dead would significantly grow to at least 1,000, likely more.
Piqued by complaints from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of slow government response, Trump offered a complaint of his own. “They want everything done for them when this should be a community effort,” he said, apparently forgetting the community’s incapacity to help itself.
Trump seemed bent on setting new records for insensitivity.
Asked how he would rate FEMA’s response to the island’s escalating woes, he barely paused for a breath. “Ten” on a scale of one to ten. At that point more than 1 million Puerto Ricans were without power, running water or protection from the elements.
And as if he couldn’t do more to disillusion Puerto Rico’s battered masses, he reminded them in a tweet “We cannot keep FEMA, the military …and first responders there forever,” a remark his staff quickly walked back after gasps of disbelief from exhausted Puerto Ricans.
Florida has a special relationship with its neighbor Puerto Rico, and will likely become the new home of islanders hoping to start a new life. That was a trend even before Maria struck.
Unemployment on the island was acute. The government’s debt topped out at $74 billion, pushing it into bankruptcy. The existing infrastructure pre-hurricane was abysmal. And government corruption only made matters worse.
Still, a humanitarian collapse is unfolding almost within our sight in a U.S. territory. Yet at times, we seem to regard Puerto Rico as a foreign country. Indeed, recent polls show that a majority of U.S. citizens believe it is a foreign country or don’t know one way or another.
Puerto Rico is entitled to U.S. government help just as California, New Jersey, Louisiana or Florida are. We owe it and would expect to get it when it’s our turn.