Recovering from a natural disaster is never easy. But it’s infinitely harder when federal emergency funds for rebuilding are subject to the whims, lies and misconceptions of a hostile president.
That’s where Puerto Rico finds itself, hostage to President Donald Trump’s flights of fancy as it struggles to recover from the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The latest slap came Monday when the Senate failed to pass a disaster aid bill after Trump’s loudly proclaimed refusal to give Puerto Rico any additional dollars. The bill contained funding for flood-ravaged Midwesterners, including farmers.
In making his case, Trump said the island has already received $91 billion in federal aid. It has not. Puerto Rico has gotten $11.2 billion so far out of $41 billion allocated, with federal estimates that another $50 billion in recovery costs could emerge over the next 20 years.
Trump says Puerto Rico has received more emergency aid than any other place struck by a hurricane. It has not. Federal aid after 2005’s Katrina — which killed 1,833 people, compared with the nearly 3,000 who died in Puerto Rico after Maria — was $120 billion. Nor is Puerto Rico using the money to pay off its massive debt.
Worse has been Trump’s apparent refusal to accept that Puerto Ricans are Americans. They have been citizens since 1917. The island is a U.S. territory. And the role of government is to protect and serve its people — all of its people. But Trump has tweeted that Puerto Rico’s leaders “only take from the USA” and that our nation “Cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments.” A White House spokesman called Puerto Rico “that country.”
Trump has been sensitive to valid criticism that the federal government reacted too slowly to help Puerto Rico. The image lingers of the president finally visiting the island and cavalierly tossing rolls of paper towels to a group of residents, as if he was launching T-shirts at a sports event. Trump’s diminishment of the island and his tendency to pit its residents against other Americans must stop.
Our nation always has responded to such emergencies. Our people volunteer their time and expertise to help fellow Americans, and Congress comes through with funding. The Senate bill included aid for victims of volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, an earthquake in Alaska, wildfires in California, and hurricanes that tore through the Southeast. Puerto Rico is no different. Trump is right that careful oversight of federal spending is needed, but that’s true for every disaster.
Natural disasters present opportunities for improvement. We saw that on Long Island after superstorm Sandy, when federal funds helped elevate electrical substations and harden other infrastructure. Now Puerto Rico has a chance to rebuild its energy grid, and modernize it via its pledge to convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. But that won’t happen if the funding spigot is arbitrarily shut.
Puerto Rico still is struggling. Basic services still have not been restored. People still are rebuilding homes. Hurricane season is coming. The president must remember that the people of Puerto Rico are just like the rest of us. And they still need our help. — The editorial board