The situation in Iowa remains horrifying. More than a third of the population has been without clean water for three weeks, and waterborne diseases appear to be spreading. Only a sixth of the population has electricity. The health care system is a shambles, and sheer hunger may be a problem in some remote areas.
Fortunately, the federal government is going all out to aid its citizens in distress. The president is making disaster relief a top priority, while praising the often heroic efforts of Iowa residents to help themselves. And generous aid, he promises, will continue as long as it’s needed.
OK, I lied. The dire situation I just described is in Puerto Rico, not Iowa (which happens to have just about the same number of U.S. citizens). And my upbeat portrayal of the federal response – which is how things might have played out if this nightmare were, in fact, in Iowa – is the opposite of the truth. What we’re actually witnessing, in effect, is the betrayal and abandonment of 3.5 million of our own people.
It’s hard to make an accurate assessment of the initial emergency response to Hurricane Maria, although there are a number of indications that it was woefully inadequate, falling far short of the response to natural disasters in other parts of the United States. What is clear, however, is that recovery has been painfully slow, and that life is actually getting worse for many residents as the cumulative effects of shortages of power, water and food take their toll.
And the Trump administration seems increasingly to see this tragedy as a public relations issue, something to be spun – partly by blaming the victims – rather than as an urgent problem to be solved.
From the beginning, President Donald Trump – who literally seems to think that he deserves praise for throwing a few rolls of paper towels into a crowd – has suggested that Puerto Rico is responsible for its own disaster, and he has systematically denigrated the efforts of its people to take care of one another.
Early this week, for example, he tweeted out a video showing a positive view of recovery efforts very much at odds with most independent reporting, and featuring remarkably few Puerto Ricans. And as The Washington Post notes, there’s a very telling piece of editing: One segment showed Forest Service workers clearing a road, but it cut off just before the official being interviewed praised local efforts: “The citizens of Puerto Rico were doing an outstanding job coming out and clearing roads to help get the aid that’s needed.”
Puerto Ricans behaving well, it seems, doesn’t fit the official storyline.
Meanwhile, it took almost three weeks after Maria struck before Trump asked Congress to provide financial aid – and his request was for loans, not grants, which is mind-boggling when you bear in mind that the territory is effectively bankrupt.
And then came Thursday morning, when Trump once again blamed Puerto Rico for its own disaster and appeared to threaten to cut off aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military.
Just to be clear: Puerto Rico was in severe financial and economic difficulty even before the hurricane, and some of that reflected mismanagement. But much of it reflected changes in the global economy – for example, growing competition from Latin American nations – reinforced by policies imposed by Washington, like the end of a crucial tax break and the enforcement of the Jones Act, which forces it to rely on expensive U.S. shipping.
And Puerto Rico is hardly the only U.S. region suffering difficulties in the face of global economic change – and such regions can normally count on federal support to help limit the hardship. What do you think West Virginia would look like if Medicare and Medicaid didn’t cover 44 percent of the population? Aside from the thousands facing financial ruin and/or premature death, what would happen to employment in health and social assistance, which provides jobs to 16 percent of the state’s workforce, which is vastly more than coal mining?
Anyway, all of this should be irrelevant. The simple fact is that millions of our fellow citizens are facing catastrophe. How can we be abandoning them in their time of need?
Much of the answer, no doubt, is the usual four-letter word: race. Puerto Ricans would doubtless be getting better treatment if they were all of, say, Norwegian descent.
But let’s be fair: Trump is also working as you read this to destroy health care for millions of other Americans, many of them working-class non-Hispanic whites – the very people who voted for him so overwhelmingly. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him an equal-opportunity monster – he clearly has a special animus toward minorities – but his self-centeredness and complete lack of empathy extend quite widely.
Whatever the precise mix of motives, what’s happening in Puerto Rico is utterly shameful. And everyone who enables the regime perpetuating this shame shares part of the guilt.