In hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, a stunning silence

Chris Gillette reports for the Associated Press: I was stunned as I walked through the darkened and humid arrivals terminal at San Juan’s International Airport two days after Hurricane Maria blasted its way across Puerto Rico.

It was quiet. No military air traffic control units on the tarmac directing planeloads of aid supplies, no bustling command center sending convoys of trucks to hard-hit areas. No mountains of relief goods stacked and ready to be deployed where needed.

There were a couple of airport employees mopping the still-damp floors of the terminal, the only sign of life in the vast space.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency guy stood at the curb smoking a cigarette as I came out looking for my ride, and we struck up a conversation. The man who gave his name as John said he and a crew from FEMA had been pre-positioned at the Intercontinental Hotel before the storm.

He told me they had spent the night moving from room to room as the ferocious winds tore chunks off the building. They ended up in the stairwell, which he said “was like a waterfall, the water gushing down the stairs like class 5 rapids.”

“Where,” I asked, “is the cavalry?” ″This is it,” he replied, pointing to several dozen National Guard pilots and support people, along with several dozen local and federal officials milling around the Forward Operations Base near the civilian terminal of the airport.

I covered Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010, among many natural disasters over the course of 30 years in journalism.

Disasters on the scale of Hurricane Maria are usually marked by the inspiring sight of thousands of military and federal emergency personnel flooding into the affected area.

Navy ships offshore, dozens of helicopters and cargo planes flying overhead, military convoys heading into affected areas with supplies and repair crews.

The only traffic on the still flooded highways that Friday consisted of civilians looking for gas, food, water or loved ones in the wake of the storm.

Twenty-thousand troops were sent into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and surrounding areas. Thousands of foreign aid workers rushed into Haiti after the earthquake there leveled Port-Au-Prince, the capital. Within three days of that quake, the U.S. had dispatched some half-dozen ships and 5,500 soldiers and Marines.

In San Juan on Sept. 22, the only sign of relief efforts were beleaguered Puerto Rican government employees struggling to address the multitude of problems confronting the devastated island, while coping with their own losses from the storm. [Continue reading…]

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Almost two weeks after being devastated by Hurricane Maria, a surge of aid finally starts arriving in Puerto Rico

The New York Times reports: A surge of fuel and food supplies and federal government personnel has begun to arrive in Puerto Rico, the governor of the storm-battered island said Sunday morning.

Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló told reporters that over the next two days, more than half a million barrels of diesel fuel and nearly a million barrels of gasoline would reach Puerto Rico. The fuel is badly needed to power emergency generators and to distribute food and other supplies across the island.

Mr. Rosselló said that the Defense Department had increased its footprint on Puerto Rico to 6,400 people, from roughly 4,600 two days earlier, with more coming, and that other federal agencies were also sending more staff to aid in the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, which smashed through the island on Sept. 20.

The Trump administration’s response to the disaster has become a heated political issue. Some Puerto Rican officials, including the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, have made televised pleas for a faster and more robust response. Others, like the governor, have spoken more positively about federal efforts. [Continue reading…]

The Hill reports: The number of Puerto Ricans without access to drinking water has risen sharply, the Defense Department announced on Saturday.

Fifty-five percent of the population did not have access to drinking water, the Pentagon said in a Saturday press release. [Continue reading…]

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‘Very engaged’ Trump spends weekend golfing and hate-tweeting

The Daily Beast reports: While in the midst of hate-tweeting officials in Puerto Rico and accusing the island’s population of being unwilling to help itself, President Donald Trump played a round of golf this weekend, an official familiar with the president’s schedule tells The Daily Beast.

The leisurely golf came on Saturday at the president’s Bedminster, New Jersey, golf resort, before Trump’s scheduled conversations with officials from Puerto Rico and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And while White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to confirm that Trump was indeed on the links, she wouldn’t deny it. The schedule of Trump’s tweets also suggest that he went golfing, with a conspicuous 6 hour absence in his posting on the social platform.

A White House official told The Daily Beast that apart from golfing on Saturday, Trump was also briefed by senior officials over the phone on Puerto Rico, North Korea, and other domestic and national security matters. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the president’s schedule. When asked about this on Sunday morning, Sanders simply replied to The Daily Beast that she “can confirm he was briefed on those issues yesterday,” sidestepping the golfing entirely, as is standard practice for this White House press office. [Continue reading…]

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Puerto Rico is all our worst fears about Trump coming real

Matthew Yglesias writes: For the first nine months of his administration, observers have had occasion to wonder — and wonder, and wonder, and wonder — how exactly Donald Trump would manage to handle a real crisis imposed by external events rather than his own impulsiveness. The answer is now apparent in the blackened streets of San Juan and the villages of interior Puerto Rico that more than a week after Hurricane Maria struck remain without access to food or clean water.

To an extent, the United States of America held up surprisingly well from Inauguration Day until September 20th or so. The ongoing degradation of American civic institutions, at a minimum, did not have an immediate negative impact on the typical person’s life.

But the world is beginning to draw a straight line from the devastation in Puerto Rico straight to the White House. Trump’s instinct so far is to turn the island’s devastation into another front in culture war politics, a strategy that could help his own political career survive.

The rest of us will just have to pray for good luck. [Continue reading…]

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Maria television reporting raises echoes of Katrina coverage

The Associated Press reports: As the days pass since Hurricane Maria ripped across Puerto Rico, television reports increasingly echo those after Katrina a dozen years ago in sounding the alarm for a desperate population frustrated by the pace of relief efforts.

The question is: how many people are listening this time?

The words were blunt by the usually easygoing Bill Weir on CNN: “This is a humanitarian crisis the likes of which we have not seen for a long time.” His report, though, came 20 minutes into a Jake Tapper newscast that was led by political developments in the United States.

The story has struggled to get the attention of predecessor hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which struck the U.S. mainland. The emotional plea of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz on Friday felt like a turning point, although it was overshadowed in the news by the resignation of President Donald Trump’s health secretary, Tom Price.

Trump himself brought it back into the news Saturday, with Twitter attacks on how the “Fake News Networks are working overtime in Puerto Rico doing their best to take the spirit away from our soldiers” and first responders.

He may have done more to focus people on the story than television had up until the past few days. So far NBC’s Lester Holt has been the only broadcast network anchor to report on the storm from Puerto Rico, a telling measure of the story’s importance to news executives. Puerto Rican developments led NBC’s “Nightly News” each night this past week; on ABC’s “World News Tonight,” it was the lead story once.

Wind and rain stinging Chris Cuomo’s face was a defining image of Hurricane Irma coverage from Florida. Yet until Anderson Cooper arrived on Friday, Maria hadn’t attracted cable news’ marquee stars. [Continue reading…]

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San Juan mayor on Trump: No time for this

 

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José Andrés, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has become the face of American disaster relief

The Washington Post reports: Unlike the president, Homeland Security or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, José Andrés has no responsibility to respond to natural disasters, and yet the Washington celebrity chef has become a reliable presence in disaster zones, deploying his Chef Network to help feed thousands of displaced people.

Andrés was among the first responders in Haiti and Houston, and now he and his crew from World Central Kitchen are on the ground in Puerto Rico, improvising ways to feed countless residents who are stranded without electricity, drinking water and food in the wake of Hurricane Maria. With little ability to speak with the outside world, Andrés has used his Twitter feed to keep followers updated on his progress in the U.S. territory.

If President Trump has become a target of criticism for the administration’s response in Puerto Rico, Andrés has become a hero. The restaurateur’s social networks are overflowing with words of praise for the native Spaniard who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2013. [Continue reading…]

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Army Corps: Puerto Rico looks a lot like Iraq in 2003

Vox reports: Most of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents are still in the dark, nine days after Hurricane Maria engulfed the island.

The storm’s 150 mph winds and a 20-inch cascade of rain created a vast humanitarian crisis, with residents now scrounging for food, clean water, and fuel to keep cool in the sweltering heat.

The damage is especially stark for Puerto Rico’s energy network, which was struggling with bad finances and poor maintenance even before the hurricane swept through.

And for Col. James DeLapp, commander of the Recovery Field Office for Puerto Rico at the US Army Corps of Engineers, the scene on the ground — and the challenge ahead — looks lot like what the Army Corps faced after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

“We had a very similar situation following the opening of the Iraq War,” said DeLapp. “This is very reminiscent of that type of effort.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump lashes out at Mayor of San Juan; says Puerto Ricans need to do more to help themselves

The Guardian reports: The mayor of San Juan lashed out at Trump administration on Friday, decrying its relief effort in the wake of hurricanes Jose and Maria and saying if it doesn’t solve the logistics “what we we are going to see is something close to a genocide”.

“We are dying here,” Carmen Yulín Cruz said at a press conference, speaking with tears in her eyes. “I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles. So, mayday we are in trouble.”

Cruz appealed directly to the president, saying: “So, Mr Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives. After all, that is one of the founding principles of the United States of … America. If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of. Enough is enough.” [Continue reading…]

Illinois’s Rep. Luis Gutiérrez interviewed on CNN:

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Lost weekend: How Trump’s time at his golf club hurt the response to Maria

The Washington Post reports: At first, the Trump administration seemed to be doing all the right things to respond to the disaster in Puerto Rico.

As Hurricane Maria made landfall on Wednesday, Sept. 20, there was a frenzy of activity publicly and privately. The next day, President Trump called local officials on the island, issued an emergency declaration and pledged that all federal resources would be directed to help.

But then for four days after that — as storm-ravaged Puerto Rico struggled for food and water amid the darkness of power outages — Trump and his top aides effectively went dark themselves.

Trump jetted to New Jersey that Thursday night to spend a long weekend at his private golf club there, save for a quick trip to Alabama for a political rally. Neither Trump nor any of his senior White House aides said a word publicly about the unfolding crisis.

Trump did hold a meeting at his golf club that Friday with half a dozen Cabinet officials — including acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke, who oversees disaster response — but the gathering was to discuss his new travel ban, not the hurricane. Duke and Trump spoke briefly about Puerto Rico but did not talk again until Tuesday, an administration official said.

Administration officials would not say whether the president spoke with any other top officials involved in the storm response while in Bedminster, N.J. He spent much of his time over those four days fixated on his escalating public feuds with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with fellow Republicans in Congress and with the National Football League over protests during the national anthem. [Continue reading…]

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San Juan Mayor: ‘Dammit, this is not a good news story,’ Cruz says in response to statement by acting head of Homeland Security

 

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Rosie Perez: ‘Trump’s words [on Puerto Rico] have left me enraged, crying’

 

The Washington Post reports: Facing a cascade of criticism over his administration’s response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, President Trump on Friday sought to underscore the vast challenges involved in the recovery effort, saying “nobody’s ever seen anything like it.”

At the top of a speech devoted to tax policy, Trump ticked off a series of issues he said are making the recovery more difficult, including that Puerto Rico is an island, that its infrastructure was already in “very, very poor shape” and that the U.S. territory is saddled with “tremendous” debt.

“Ultimately the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort … will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island,” Trump said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump claims he’s doing a heck of a job to help Puerto Rico

David A Graham writes: Amid a roiling humanitarian disaster in a U.S. territory, President Trump has one clear, overriding message for the people of Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States: He, Donald Trump, is doing a phenomenal job.

Here’s Trump Friday morning:


And Thursday morning:


And Tuesday morning:


The president is not the only person to make this claim. On Thursday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke called herself “very satisfied” with the response to Maria. [Continue reading…]

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Trump waives Jones Act for Puerto Rico, easing hurricane aid shipments

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration said on Thursday that it would temporarily waive a century-old shipping law for Puerto Rico that officials there said was hindering disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Maria.

The waiver of the law, known as the Jones Act, comes as federal and local officials report more supplies trickling onto the increasingly desperate island. But the Trump administration remains under pressure to step up the recovery effort.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, announced the decision on Twitter on Thursday morning, saying that President Trump had authorized it after a request from Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. Army takes over massive mission to save Puerto Rico

The Daily Beast reports: The U.S. Army will take over recovery operations in Puerto Rico, Col. Jorge Santini of Puerto Rico’s National Guard state command told The Daily Beast. The announcement is expected Thursday afternoon.

U.S. Northern Command appointed Army Brig. Gen. Richard Kim on Wednesday to oversee operations. The Army will oversee every facet of the massive mission and coordinate with the National Guard, FEMA, and Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s office, Santini said. Approximately 2,600 U.S. military personnel and Guard members are currently involved in Hurricane Maria relief efforts, the Pentagon said.

“We need more manpower, more resources, more help, quickly and efficiently,” Santini said. “We needed to federalize the recovery plan.”

Ret. Gen. Russel Honore, who led the military effort in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, told NPR on Thursday morning and far more troops are needed.

“Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina,’ Honore said, adding 20,000 federal troops and 40,000 National Guard were under his command. Honore said twice as many are needed for Puerto Rico.

“We started moving about four days too late,” Honore said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. denies request for Puerto Rico shipping waiver

Reuters reports: The Trump administration on Tuesday denied a request to waive shipping restrictions to help get fuel and supplies to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, saying it would do nothing to address the island’s main impediment to shipping, damaged ports.

The Jones Act limits shipping between coasts to U.S. flagged vessels. However, in the wake of brutal storms, the government has occasionally issued temporary waivers to allow the use of cheaper, tax free, or more readily available foreign flagged ships.

The Department of Homeland Security, which waived the act after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, did not agree an exemption would help this time.

On Monday, U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez and seven other representatives asked Elaine Duke, acting head of Homeland Security, to waive the nearly 100-year-old shipping law for a year to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria.Gregory Moore, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, an office of Homeland Security, said in a statement that an assessment by the agency showed there was “sufficient capacity” of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.

“The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability,” Moore said.

The government’s rationale for a waiver after the storms hit Texas, Louisiana and Florida was to ease movement of fuel to places along the U.S. East Coast and make up for temporary outages of high capacity pipelines.

“The situation in Puerto Rico is much different,” Moore said in the statement, adding that most of the humanitarian effort would be carried out with barges, which make up a large portion of the U.S. flagged cargo fleet.

Puerto Rico has long railed against the Jones Act, saying it makes the cost of imported basic commodities, such as food, clothing and fuel, more expensive.

“Our dependence on fossil fuel imports by sea is hampering the restoration of services,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, an energy expert at the nonprofit group the Union of Concerned Scientists. The refusal to allow the waiver “is raising fears on the island that they are going to be left behind in this disaster.” [Continue reading…]

Nelson A. Denis writes: After World War I, America was worried about German U-boats, which had sunk nearly 5,000 ships during the war. Congress enacted the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a.k.a. the Jones Act, to ensure that the country maintained a shipbuilding industry and seafaring labor force. Section 27 of this law decreed that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. In addition, every ship must be built, crewed and owned by American citizens.

Almost a century later, there are no U-boats lurking off the coast of Puerto Rico. The Jones Act has outlived its original intent, yet it is strangling the island’s economy.

Under the law, any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.

The foreign vessel has one other option: It can reroute to Jacksonville, Fla., where all the goods will be transferred to an American vessel, then shipped to Puerto Rico where — again — all the rerouting costs are passed through to the consumer.

Thanks to the law, the price of goods from the United States mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, which are not covered by the Jones Act. Moreover, the cost of living in Puerto Rico is 13 percent higher than in 325 urban areas elsewhere in the United States, even though per capita income in Puerto Rico is about $18,000, close to half that of Mississippi, the poorest of all 50 states.

This is a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico a captive market. The island is the fifth-largest market in the world for American products, and there are more Walmarts and Walgreens per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else on the planet. [Continue reading…]

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Puerto Rican golf resort that Trump promised to save (but so didn’t)

In October 2016, BuzzFeed reported: Donald Trump claimed he had a plan to save a failing Puerto Rican golf resort: He would streamline its budget and attract new members. Those promises, repeated for years, helped the club sell a raft of government-backed bonds that it had very little chance of repaying.

Trump collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from the resort, but he never did oversee the golf course’s daily operations. He didn’t attract more than a handful of new members or reduce its multi-million dollar annual losses. Its costly, self-dealing contracts remained in place. In late 2011, six months after selling the bonds, the club defaulted, leaving Puerto Rican taxpayers — already suffering through a major economic crisis — on the hook for as much as $32.7 million, according to an analysis by Securities Litigation and Consulting Group.

The Trump family distanced itself from the project’s failure, claiming that the real estate developer merely licensed his name to the property. But a review of hundreds of pages of corporate and legal filings, undertaken by BuzzFeed News, shows that Trump promised the club’s investors and the government of Puerto Rico something entirely different. [Continue reading…]

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Puerto Rico’s American dream is dead

Tyler Cowen writes: President Donald Trump has finally started tweeting about the disaster in Puerto Rico, and his messages show that he — and we as a nation — still haven’t digested the full implications of the post-Hurricane Maria situation. The underlying reality is that the political and economic model for the island just isn’t working any more, and the dream of Puerto Rican economic convergence has been laid to rest once and for all. That in turn says something bad about the rest of this country, namely how quickly we will give up on the possibility of transformational change.

The traditional American dream is that the poorer parts of this country would, sooner or later, start catching up to the richer parts. The American South, after an extreme divergence, gained on the North after World War II. But Puerto Rico never made the same leap, and in relative terms has held roughly steady since 1970.

Worse yet, the island has about $123 billion in debt and pension obligations, compared with a gross domestic product of slightly more than $100 billion, a number that is sure to fall. In the last decade, the island has lost about 9 percent of its population, including many ambitious and talented individuals. In the past 20 years, Puerto Rico’s labor force shrank by about 20 percent, with the health-care sector being especially hard hit. The population of children under 5 has fallen 37 percent since 2000, and Puerto Rico has more of its population over 60 than any U.S. state.

Hurricane Maria has produced conditions unprecedented in recent American experience. Much of the island has no fresh water and no phone service, and the status of the food supply and its accessibility is uncertain. Restoring electricity will take months, the health-care system isn’t functioning, and a major dam may yet break, causing further dangerous flooding.

Those developments will worsen the already dire long-term prospects for Puerto Rico. Tourism no longer exists after the storm, and presumably outside investment will decline in both the short and longer run, due to damaged infrastructure and the possibility that major storms are now more likely as the climate changes. [Continue reading…]

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San Juan mayor: ‘There is horror in the streets’

 

Reuters reports: President Donald Trump hailed his administration on Tuesday for a “really good job” helping Puerto Rico recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, despite complaints that federal aid has been too slow to reach the U.S. territory.

Trump agreed to boost federal disaster aid to the island, increasing funding to assist with debris removal and emergency protective measures. He said he would visit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 3.

Critics and some of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents accused the U.S. government of having been slower to respond with water, food and electric grid repairs than it would have been on the mainland, even though the island’s people are U.S. citizens. [Continue reading…]

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