Speed the pace of relief to desperate Puerto Ricans
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.
A family collects water in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.