Remember when Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico last fall, a week or two after the devastation of Hurricane Maria? He threw paper towels to the crowd, boasted of the size (why is he always so obsessed about size?) of the recovery effort and bragged that the island had “only” experienced 14 deaths, compared to the 2500 plus from Hurricane Katrina. Later he criticized residents for not doing enough to help themselves and got into a Twitter spat with San Juan’s mayor – sad!
Well, the stats are in and once again our president is exposed for peddling falsehoods, whether intentional or not. In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Harvard School of Public Health and others updated the figures through December 31, 2017. Using a survey of 3299 households (why not 3300?), they concluded the actual death toll was 4645, or 70 times the Puerto Rican government’s official total of 64. Comparing figures with 2016, this represented a 62% increase in mortality on the island that year.
At least 1/3 of increased deaths were attributed to delayed/denied medical care. It’s not clear, from reading the report, what the other 2/3 were caused by. The average household went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without running water and 41 days without cell phone coverage. The further you were from a major population center, the longer you waited. Today, nine months later, over 30,000 residents still lack electricity.
I traveled to Puerto Rico between Christmas and New Years of last year, seeking warmth but also interested in assessing the damage. I stayed in San Juan (most of the outlying hotels were still damaged) but spent three days driving around the countryside, sacrificing beach time and a killer tan! Some observations: the island is small but densely populated, with 3.5 million souls spread throughout. The map from my rental car agency showed many small towns and cities with large green areas in between. I assumed these would be fields and forests – not so. Instead, I drove up and down winding roads over endless mountains with houses perched, continuously and precariously, on the side. Outside of a few parks, very little land was unsettled.
This would present a logistical challenge in the best of times, which this obviously wasn’t. Power and water lines would need to be stretched foot by foot across the whole island. Worse, the power grid was on the verge of collapse before the storm, as was the government, with over $85 billion in unpayable debts. Bureaucratic snafus worsened the problem. A FEMA contractor staying at my hotel said the main problem was the lack of supplies, particularly power lines. Later they discovered many thousands of miles of power lines sitting unused in warehouses in Florida, waiting for authorization to ship.
The ocean, too, became a problem. Puerto Rico is a large island 200+ miles off the mainland, not a compact geographical zone around Houston, Texas. With these logistical challenges and less than half the per capita GDP as the mainland US, Puerto Ricans were at a distinct disadvantage in “helping themselves.” Add political impotence to the equation. The island is a “commonwealth,” or territory, not a state. They have no Congressman or Senators and they don’t vote for President. Nor do, I suspect, many residents contribute large sums of money to US campaigns to buy “access” to favored politicians. They were, in a word, screwed.
I’m not sure exactly what should have been done but the answer, obviously, is much more. Let’s start with something near and dear to Trump’s cold heart. He signed and helped push through an increase in the Defense (a misnomer) budget to over $700 billion for a country with no natural enemies or fear of foreign invasion. What’s it all for? Why not take a small portion of that money and use it for civilian reconstruction, especially since the Army and its marvelous Corps of Engineers are the only federal agency with the organizational capacity, resources, knowledge and skill to handle such a mammoth task?
Hurricane season is upon us again. Let’s hope and pray that Puerto Rico is spared any major storms in this and coming years. It is a lovely island with warm, beautiful people whose major downfall is to have been made, in effect, a “colony” (not a state) of the USA in 1898. Nevertheless, they are US citizens, hence our brothers and sisters (hermanos y hermanas). Let’s treat them that way now and in any future hour of need.