The devastation in Puerto Rico is no “good news story”
Last month on September 20th, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. Two weeks later, less than 6% of citizens have electricity, and less than 13% of citizens have cell service. Only 14 hospitals have electricity, while 51 still need generators for power. Thousands of Puerto Ricans remain without access to water and food, as FEMA struggles to reach all of the affected towns, with thousands of shipments of aid sitting idly in Puerto Rico’s port. The storm wiped out roughly 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico, with some predicting that Puerto Rico would lack the ability to produce any food for a year. These horrific circumstances come at a time when Puerto Rico struggles with a 45% poverty rate (nearly 60% for children), and with a 13% unemployment rate. On a average 230 left Puerto Rico each day in previous years from a report in 2014. These bleak circumstances point to an economic crisis that will only be exacerbated by the devastation brought by Hurricane Maria in quick succession to Hurricane Irma.
The Trump Administration has reacted with callousness towards the plight Puerto Rico is facing to no avail. Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary, Elaine Duke, declared that the federal response to the crisis in Puerto Rico was a “good-news story in terms of our ability to reach people”. Trump told a number of lies during his several hour visit to Puerto Rico: saying telling the crowd of people they “don’t need them [flashlights] anymore”, and how “[m]ost of the hospitals are open” (the former being inaccurate because less than 6% of Puerto Ricans have electricity, and the latter being inaccurate because only 10 of the island’s 69 hospitals were reconnected to electricity). Trump also went as far as to contrast the devastation Puerto Rico suffered with what he considered a “real catastrophe like Katrina”, despite Puerto Rico Public Safety Secretary Hector Pesquera predicting that the death toll is higher than the official death toll of 16 people. Perhaps worst of all, Trump tweeted that the workers and leadership of Puerto Rico “want everything done for them”, despite Puerto Rican workers, leaders, and families rallying together to provide community support for towns devastated by the Hurricane.
In response to such criticism of the Trump Administration, one might point me to Trump’s decision to allow a ten day exemption of the Jones Act, a law passed in 1920 that requires all ships conducting trade with Puerto Rico to be U.S. ships. To this I would say: the ten day exemption will do nothing to address the devastation a Category 5 Hurricane causes to an island through a direct hit. Puerto Rico needs more than an exemption lasting just over a week — it needs to be fully and permanently exempted from the Jones Act provisions. The U.S. Transportation Maritime Administration found that “on average, a US flagged ship costs $20,053 to operate per day compared to a foreign flagged ship at $7,454 per day”, forcing Puerto Rico to carry a major financial burden as it conducts trade. This is especially problematic for an island that annually imports nearly 85% of its food; as a consequence, the nearly 50% of the Island’s population in poverty is forced to grapple with the struggle of buying more expensive food. Aside from hurting the ability of the impoverished to secure food,the MMA increases the costs of doing business on the Island because of the high cost of shipping, thus imposing a “substantial burden on the Island’s productivity.” Moreover, a recent study submitted to the Government Accountability Office found that the MMA has cost the Puerto Rican economy over $75 billion dollars — more than the total amount of debt currently owed by the Puerto Rican government.
After the ten-day exemption expired, countless towns and provinces in Puerto Rico — approximately 44% — still lack access to clean drinking water. I reiterate that 95% of Puerto Rico still lacks electricity. I reiterate that the majority of Puerto Rican hospitals are not fully functioning. Aid to Puerto Rico could be delivered far more quickly if the surrounding nations were allowed to transport aid (medicinal, food, water) to Puerto Rico, making what Trump has called “an impossible situation” a situation that can be better addressed.
More broadly, I criticize the Trump Administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico because Puerto Rico deserves more from the President of the United States. It deserves a leader who does not perpetuate racist stereotypes of Puerto Rico wanting “everything done for them”, when there are pictures of Puerto Rican children helping clear the debris of their destroyed houses and towns, when the mayor of San Juan is treading through flood waters looking for survivors, and when Puerto Rican doctors and nurses are walking through collapsed houses and buildings looking for people in need of treatment. The rhetoric Trump uses when discussing Puerto Rico has consequences: by promulgating stereotypes of Puerto Rico as being lazy and only wanting help, Trump confirms and affirms the widespread ignorance towards Puerto Rico (according to a recent poll, a majority of U.S. citizens are unaware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens). The President’s demonstrated hostility will only prolong Puerto Rico’s battle against ignorance and racial animus from the mainland towards its people. Puerto Rico, above all, deserves a president whose reaction to a disaster on the island is not to point out how much debt Puerto Rico is in, or compare the devastation to what he perceives to be a “real catastrophe” but rather be a symbol of hope that the Puerto Rican people can look to and trust. Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Trump tweets and mocks Puerto Rico while Puerto Rico seeks to rebuild itself from the aftermath of a Category 5 Hurricane.
Congress must permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, recognizing that the law has crippled the ability of the Puerto Rican economy to thrive and to foster an environment in which small businesses can thrive. Congress must no longer refuse to fund Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program at an equitable rate to reduce the economic burden that Puerto Rico’s damaged hospitals must shoulder as they seek to provide a heavily impoverished island treatment. Congress must change how Puerto Rico’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Nutrition Assistance Program, from a capped blocked grant program with limited funds (and thus a limited capacity to address Puerto Rico’s poverty), to a program that receives funding determined by how much the Puerto Rican government spends per capita as it supports families that can qualify for enrollment, so that all families that need assistance can receive it, not those who qualify for assistance before the block grant runs out of funds. These proposals will not solve Puerto Rico’s poverty, but they will help put Puerto Rico on the path to economic recovery and one-day a healthy economy that meets the needs of all Puerto Ricans.