Speed the pace of re­lief to des­per­ate Puerto Ri­cans

USA TODAY US Edition - - OPINION -

More than a week af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria blasted through Puerto Rico, the mis­ery fac­tor is broad and deep­en­ing.

The death toll has been re­ported at 16, but the true num­ber is, for now, un­know­able. Power and com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­main down across most of the is­land, and that’s in sweltering trop­i­cal heat. More than a mil­lion peo­ple are with­out drink­ing wa­ter. Many vil­lages re­main in­ac­ces­si­ble.

Twenty-five hos­pi­tals aren’t fully op­er­a­tional. Peo­ple wait hours for gro­ceries, gas and cash. Thou­sands of shipping con­tain­ers are stack­ing up at the San Juan port. Short­ages of truck driv­ers and fuel are de­lay­ing de­liv­er­ies of med­i­cal sup­plies, food and con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als.

The sit­u­a­tion is dif­fi­cult, par­tic­u­larly com­ing on the heels of hur­ri­canes in Texas and Florida. But in ma­jor dis­as­ters like this, peo­ple look to the unique re­sources of the fed­eral govern­ment, and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ini­tial re­sponse lacked fo­cus, ur­gency and in­no­va­tive thought.

The first week­end af­ter Maria struck, Pres­i­dent Trump said al­most noth­ing about the is­land’s car­nage and in­stead ig­nited a cul­ture war over NFL protests. When he fi­nally tweeted about Puerto Rico, he in­cluded ir­rel­e­vant asides about the is­land’s his­tory of govern­ment debt. And, cit­ing op­po­si­tion from shipping in­ter­ests, he hes­i­tated in sus­pend­ing an ar­chaic law that pre- vents for­eign-flagged ves­sels from de­liv­er­ing sup­plies to U.S. ports.

The slug­gish re­sponse fed into wrong-headed as­sump­tions about Puerto Rico and in­ten­si­fied is­lan­ders’ bit­ter sense of marginal­iza­tion. Sur­veys show less than half of Amer­i­cans fully un­der­stand that the is­land is part of the USA, and that its 3.4 mil­lion res­i­dents are U.S. cit­i­zens by birth.

Thou­sands are now us­ing that birthright to flee dev­as­ta­tion as fast as they can se­cure an air­line ticket and a flight. For an econ­omy al­ready in dis­tress be­fore the storm struck, this brain drain will only make re­cov­ery tougher.

Trump knows well the stain left on the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion by its lame re­sponse to Ka­t­rina, which claimed 1,800 lives along the Gulf Coast. It’s why the pres­i­dent reg­u­larly re­cites self-con­grat­u­la­tory re­marks about his emer­gency re­sponse.

By Thurs­day, the ad­min­is­tra­tion seemed fi­nally to grasp the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion. Trump, who is sched­uled to visit Tues­day, waived the Jones Act, a 1920 law that re­quires goods shipped from one U.S. port to an­other to be trans­ported on U.S. ships. And a three-star of­fi­cer, Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, was named to lead re­lief ef­forts.

As with the re­sponse to Ka­t­rina, the mil­i­tary com­po­nent is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant. The Pen­tagon has leaned into the Puerto Rico dis­as­ter, send­ing 16 Navy ships with 10 more on the way, and 7,200 troops. Much more might well be nec­es­sary.

The mil­i­tary can rapidly de­ploy field com­mu­ni­ca­tion units, truck driv­ers, en­gi­neers ca­pa­ble of reopen­ing roads and restor­ing power, mo­bile mil­i­tary clin­ics, mil­i­tary po­lice, and lo­gis­tics teams ca­pa­ble of co­or­di­nat­ing the de­liv­ery of re­lief sup­plies.

With stalled ground de­liv­ery of re­lief as­sis­tance, air­drops should be con­sid­ered for re­mote areas. And the govern­ment should con­sider the emer­gency evac­u­a­tion, per­haps by ship, of Puerto Ri­cans liv­ing in squalor be­cause of the hur­ri­cane and too poor to fly out to join rel­a­tives on the main­land.

Puerto Rico — and the bat­tered U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands as well — need fast ac­tion to al­le­vi­ate the cur­rent hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and avert an even big­ger one.

RA­MON ESPINOSA, AP

A fam­ily col­lects wa­ter in Baya­mon, Puerto Rico.

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