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Puerto Ricans stand in a long line waiting to get fuel, following the direct hit of Hurricane Maria last week. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Focused on Debt Amid Puerto Rico Crisis, Maria Fast Becoming Trump's Katrina

"You don't put debt above people, you put people above debt," says San Juan mayor in response to president

Julia Conley

With his failure to provide relief after Hurricane Maria looking increasingly like George W. Bush's too-little and too-late response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, President Donald Trump's critics are denouncing his most recent tweets on the situation in Puerto Rico, where more than three million American citizens are without electricity and the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen.

After spending the weekend attacking NFL players for protesting racial inequality and police brutality, the president posted three tweets about Puerto Rico on Monday night—assuring that the situation is under control while suggesting that the U.S. is limited in the help it can offer because of the island territory's debts.

Contrary to Trump's statement, the island is not "doing well" in terms of the food and water that's been made available to it thus far. Though the federal response was ramped up on Monday, with FEMA administrator Brock Long traveling to Puerto Rico to assess the vast damage, Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security called the relief efforts "anemic" in an article at Slate.

In some cases it took the federal government days to even contact local leaders in Puerto Rico's major cities, let alone deploy aid. Only the most rudimentary military support is now on the ground. This is inadequate and calls to mind the lethargic response by the Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina in 2005...

In the five days since the storm, FEMA says it has distributed more than 1.5 million meals and 1.1 million liters of water to Americans affected by the storms, with more staged for future deliveries...

But Puerto Rico has 3.4 million residents, and another 100,000 live in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clean water is a basic daily necessity. These islands’ residents will need orders of magnitude more—plus food, fuel, electricity, housing, medicine, and more—in the months to come until local capacity is restored.

While Puerto Ricans grapple with a badly damaged agricultural sector, eliminating a major food source; long lines for fuel, a dwindling resource; and the possibility of electricity remaining out for no less than a month and possibly six months, the mayor of San Juan sharply rebuked Trump for bringing up the territory's debts.

"Make no mistake, there is a humanitarian crisis," said Carmen Yulin Cruz on CNN on Tuesday morning. "There are thousands and thousands of people going back to their homes to find out they don't have a home to go back to. You don't put debt above people, you put people above debt."

Cruz was joined by other critics who expressed shock that Trump would suggest the territory's debts need to be paid while 40 percent of residents are without clean water.

Puerto Rico is indeed deeply in debt—but as Juan Cole wrote, there is actually a set of policies that Trump and other lawmakers could push in this moment to  to both alleviate the economic burdens and put Puerto Rico on a fast track to recover:

 

1. Offer them serious debt relief. If you have $50 billion to give the Pentagon, which it doesn’t even want it, you have $50 billion for reducing Puerto Rico's debt.
2. Put back effing Section 936 into the Federal tax code to encourage businesses to go to Puerto Rico and put its people to work.
3. Rebuild its electricity grid underground to protect it from hurricanes. Give special grants and tax breaks for installation of solar and wind energy and purchase of Tesla power walls. The global heating caused by the mainland’s carbon dioxide emissions ensures that the hurricanes will get worse and worse, and the island needs to be rebuilt to withstand high winds.
4. Give grants for people to rebuild their destroyed and damaged homes and businesses.

Adding to the discrepancy between the Trump administration's support of Texas and Florida following their recent hurricanes, and the slow response to Puerto Rico's situation, is the territory's lack of representation in the U.S. government. The territory does not have any senators or House members, making it difficult to secure the kind of funding granted to states. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but a poll released on Tuesday by Morning Consult found that only 54 percent of Americans are aware of this.


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