A tale of two Puerto Ricos: What Trump saw — and what he didn’t

The Washington Post reports: The Puerto Rico that President Trump saw during his four-hour visit on Tuesday afternoon was that of Angel Pérez Otero, the mayor of Guaynabo, a wealthy San Juan suburb known for its amenity-driven gated communities that was largely spared when Hurricane Maria hit nearly two weeks ago.

Pérez Otero led Trump and his entourage on a walking tour of a neighborhood, where high-speed winds had blown out some second-story windows and knocked over a few trees — but where life seemed to be returning to normal, thanks to assistance from the government. Neighbors stood outside their homes ready to warmly greet the president, their phones powered up and ready to snap photos.

One homeowner told Trump that he lost a couple windows and still hasn’t regained electricity, but he was never worried about his family’s safety.

“We have a good house, thank God,” he told the president.

“That’s fantastic,” Trump said. “Well, we’re going to help you out. Have a good time.”

If the president had traveled a little deeper into the island, to the communities that sustained some of the heaviest damage, he would have witnessed a very different Puerto Rico. [Continue reading…]

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White House dials back Trump’s vow to clear Puerto Rico’s debt

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration on Wednesday walked back the president’s apparent vow to wipe out Puerto Rico’s debt, suggesting that the island would have to solve its own fiscal woes despite the catastrophic damage it has endured from two powerful hurricanes.

“I wouldn’t take it word for word with that,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said on CNN in reference to President Trump’s suggestion that the United States might clear Puerto Rico’s debt.

Mr. Mulvaney said that the administration would be focusing its efforts on helping Puerto Rico rebuild from storm damage but that the commonwealth would continue to proceed through the debt restructuring process it was undertaking before the storm.

“Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out how to fix the errors that it’s made for the last generation on its own finances,” Mr. Mulvaney said.

For more than a year, Puerto Rico has clashed with investors who hold slivers of its $73 billion debt, and who have pushed the United States territory to pay up.

Confusion over the future of that debt was ignited on Tuesday when Mr. Trump raised the prospect of erasing it. [Continue reading…]

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In San Juan, Trump tells Puerto Ricans that they have been lucky

Philip Gourevitch writes: One of the more memorable headlines of the past quarter century read, simply, “If Bosnians were Dolphins.” It appeared in Commentary magazine, on an article by Edward Luttwak, which began, “If Bosnian Muslims had been bottle-nosed dolphins, would the world have allowed Croats and Serbs to slaughter them by the tens of thousands?” That question came to mind as Donald Trump flew south to spend a few hours in Puerto Rico, nearly two weeks after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria: two weeks during which it became clear that the Administration had done practically nothing to prepare the island for the alarmingly forecast storm; two weeks in which the federal response to the storm’s ravages has only gradually approached something like a mobilization that would have been appropriate on Day One for a much lesser calamity; two weeks in which nearly all of Puerto Rico has been without electricity, and more than half the population has been without access to potable water; two weeks in which Puerto Rico’s frail grew frailer, its sick grew sicker, its sense of abandonment grew more desperate; two weeks in which the President focussed on talking about what a great job he and his team were doing (“A-plus”), tweeting contempt at Puerto Ricans, collectively, and at the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, specifically; two weeks in which the relative effectiveness and success of the federal government’s preparation for and response to Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Texas and Irma’s rampage in Florida threw the dereliction of duty in Puerto Rico into ever starker relief; two weeks in which we were reminded that whenever we speak of a humanitarian crisis we are really speaking of a political crisis. All of which raises the question: If Puerto Ricans could vote, would they be so grossly ill served?

The press has been at pains to explain that Puerto Rico is not a foreign country but an American territory whose three and a half million people are U.S. citizens. Repeating this fact is essential service journalism: as the Times has reported, about half of America’s non-Puerto Rican population was unaware of that fact—and, as my colleague Amy Davidson Sorkin has written, Trump’s remarks did nothing to inform them otherwise. And, yet, Puerto Ricans are not citizens like the rest of us, because Puerto Rico is not a state. It is a so-called commonwealth of the United States, whose people are denied electoral representation in the federal government that decides their political destiny: no voice in Congress, no vote in Presidential elections. This arrangement, born of America’s conquest of the island, in the Spanish-American War, makes the islanders more like colonial subjects than citizens of a democratic republic. They are, in effect, second-class citizens. [Continue reading…]

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The death toll in Puerto Rico isn’t being accurately documented or reported

Vox reports: Twelve days ago, Hurricane Maria trashed Puerto Rico, demolishing its already weak power, communications, and transportation infrastructure. The storm quickly gave way to a humanitarian crisis, with many of Puerto Rico’s residents struggling to access food, water, and fuel to run generators and cars. Help has been slow to arrive. And with each passing day, we’re learning more about the frightening conditions on the ground, from the sick being turned away from barely functioning hospitals to mothers desperate for water for their babies.

But one figure is disquietingly absent: an accurate death toll.

The official death count has not budged since Wednesday, when the Puerto Rican government said that just 16 people had been killed as a result of the storm. That prompted President Trump to claim Tuesday on his visit to the island that it wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which had thousands of deaths.

Yet there is good reason to believe the actual figure is much higher than 16, and will continue to climb.

Omaya Sosa Pascual is a reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) in San Juan. She was skeptical of the government’s figure of 16 and began to call the 69 hospitals around the country, asking them about deaths related to the hurricane.

Pascual spoke to dozens of doctors, administrators, morgue directors, and funeral directors around the country, and wrote up her initial findings in a September 28 report in the Miami Herald. She then got Puerto Rico’s public safety secretary to confirm Monday that there have been dozens more deaths than the official statistic reflects. By her count, there are now an estimated 60 confirmed deaths linked to the hurricane and possibly hundreds more to come.

So why has the government been so slow to document the dead? Is this a cover-up, or just an administrative casualty of the all-encompassing crisis?

One part of the answer is simple: The situation is so chaotic that death certificates aren’t being signed, which means deaths aren’t being officially recorded.

“Everything in the government has collapsed,” Pascual told me by phone from the parking lot of a San Juan medical center, one of the few places in the city where she said she could get a reliable cellphone signal. “Some of the people who work in the government lost their homes themselves and aren’t at work. So they can’t do death certificates. The dead can’t be documented because of all the logistics and legal aspects of declaring someone dead.”

Still, she said, “not being able to document it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” [Continue reading…]

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Oxfam criticizes U.S. government response in Puerto Rico

CNN reports: Oxfam, a global organization working to end poverty, is criticizing the United States government’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The group specifically criticized President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Oxfam has monitored the response in Puerto Rico closely, and we are outraged at the slow and inadequate response the US government has mounted in Puerto Rico,” Oxfam America President Abby Maxman said in a statement. “Clean water, food, fuel, electricity, and health care are in desperately short supply and quickly dwindling, and we’re hearing excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response.”

The group rarely criticizes government strategies in crises affecting wealthy nations such as the US.

“The US has more than enough resources to mobilize an emergency response but has failed to do so in a swift and robust manner,” Maxman said. [Continue reading…]

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In San Juan, we wait hours to buy groceries. We’re the lucky ones

Armando Valdés Prieto writes: My pregnant wife and I stood in line for two hours outside our neighborhood grocery store over the weekend. Once inside, we found that most essential products were scarce, and we were limited in the number we could buy of each item.

But we’re in Puerto Rico’s capital city, and we’re middle class, and that makes us pretty lucky. Millions of poor Puerto Ricans are worse off since Hurricane Maria hit, and if the government and aid organizations can’t figure out the best way to deploy lifesaving supplies to the rest of the island, it will only get bleaker.

In San Juan, folks have to choose between different lines: at the supermarket for food, at the gas station for a fill-up or at the bank to access cash — the only form of payment accepted at most stores, since ongoing telecommunications outages make it difficult to accept credit cards or other electronic payment methods. Even the commonwealth’s Nutritional Assistance Program, which feeds 1.3 million people out of Puerto Rico’s population of nearly 3.4 million, operates mostly electronically, which means it’s currently also not accepted at many retail outlets, so poorer residents can’t buy food without cash. Thankfully, many low-lying areas in San Juan do have potable water service. El Nuevo Día, the island’s largest and most influential newspaper, reported on Friday that 45 to 50 percent of the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s customers now have service. But that number has barely budged since the first wave of repairs began days after the disaster.

Still, outside the San Juan metro area, reports paint starker choices. In many rural towns there are no lines; stores haven’t been able to open, tanker trucks can’t reach distant gas stations to resupply and many bank branches are still closed. Water service has not been reestablished in many areas, and people I’ve spoken with tell me of hour-long slogs just to get drinking water for their families. Rural residents have no basic goods to buy, and no way to buy them even if supplies arrived. They need help immediately.

This past weekend, I spoke to an aid worker for an international NGO and a high-ranking official in the federal disaster response bureaucracy in Puerto Rico. To my surprise, they both agreed that the island’s current predicament is one of the worst, if not the worst, natural and human catastrophe they’d worked on. [Continue reading…]

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Trump faces political danger in visit to Puerto Rico

Politico reports: President Donald Trump on Tuesday will come face to face with the “politically motivated ingrates” he slammed on Twitter just days before.

The president will land in Puerto Rico after spending much of the past week boasting about a wildly successful response effort that hasn’t matched the reality of the hurricane-ravaged island and after picking a fight over the weekend with the San Juan mayor.

The visit comes as he’s also attempting to be soother-in-chief for the nation after a shooting in Las Vegas left at least 59 dead on Sunday night — the first time he’s had to navigate two disasters of national scope that are politically perilous for any president, but especially one prone to off-the-cuff riffs. [Continue reading…]

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What Puerto Rico needs

Simon Johnson writes: President Donald Trump and the US Congress are coming under mounting pressure to increase assistance to Puerto Rico. The devastation caused there last week by Hurricane Maria has only exacerbated severe longer-term problems resulting from deferred maintenance on the island’s critical infrastructure. Puerto Rico needs more than short-term assistance (although this is also urgent); it needs bipartisan support to rebuild, with an initial and essential focus on a more robust and cheaper supply of electricity.

The existing electricity grid has substantially collapsed, with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) estimating that up to 90% of the transmission system may have been destroyed by the hurricane. A major dam is at risk. Damage to the air traffic control infrastructure has severely limited flights to and from the island. As Governor Ricardo Rosselló has stated publicly, there is now a real risk of a major humanitarian disaster. Donations are flowing in, but the total will be small relative to what is needed.

The Trump administration says that FEMA is working hard and effectively. Let’s hope they are right. There will be a lot of questions about whether Puerto Rico’s roughly 3.4 million US citizens receive the same support as Texas and Florida (and other parts of the 50 states) when natural disaster strikes. But the bigger question is this: What will be done – and by whom – to help Puerto Rico really recover?

Puerto Rico – a dependent territory of the US – needs major investment in its essential infrastructure to bring it at least to the level of the 50 states. After the humanitarian situation is stabilized, policymakers should focus on providing Puerto Rico with stable, reliable, and cost-effective electric power, generated primarily by renewables and distributed over a smart, resilient grid. Ensuring energy availability will be indispensable for stability and sustained economic growth. [Continue reading…]

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Trapped in the mountains, Puerto Ricans don’t see help, or a way out

The Washington Post reports: The day Hurricane Maria swiped through these mountains, the loose, wet dirt started to tumble and roll. It broke through the gate and through the door. It moved with ferocity and determination. It covered and filled everything.

“It looked like chocolate,” said Ferdinand Ramos, a 63-year-old retired police officer whose home was directly in the path of massive landslides. The viscous mud crashed into his living room and kitchen, leaving a shin-high sludge.

Then, for almost nine days, Ramos and Norma Jimenez and members of their extended family were trapped on their property. No one came to help. Their home on the remote outskirts of this town 60 miles southwest of San Juan became a prison.

Even after they cleaned up inside, they had no way to leave — the mud, broken trees and chunks of debris had piled up outside. On Thursday — eight days after Maria had passed — a municipal utility worker cleared their street.

The family had almost run out of drinking water. Their isolated community of Caonillas had received no aid from the local or federal government, residents said. And they had no way to make the perilous trek to town; the winding roads had been obliterated and six of the family’s cars had been stored in a garage that collapsed, crushing five of the vehicles and sending the sixth sliding down the mountainside and into a river. [Continue reading…]

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King of compassion: Trump dedicates golf trophy to hurricane victims

In a display of empathy and concern that fell short of the standard attributed to Marie Antoinette, Donald Trump yesterday dedicated the 2017 Presidents Cup trophy to hurricane victims:

 

HuffPost reports: As Trump spoke at Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City, New Jersey, someone in the crowd called out: “You don’t give a shit about Puerto Rico.”

Online, the reaction was about the same: [Continue reading…]

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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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