September 27th, 2021


Reducing disaster in Puerto Rico to mere politics

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published October 3, 2017

Reducing disaster in Puerto Rico to mere politics

Politics is the name of the game in Washington, and Washington can make a game of anything, even charity, compassion and Christian mercy.

The suffering in Puerto Rico is such the likes of which few on the mainland, save Americans on the Gulf Coast, have lately seen. Whole towns have been blown and washed away, highways ruined, hospitals devastated, the electric grid which furnishes power to the entire island vir­tually eliminated, grocery stores swept away and the island left marooned in an angry sea when the only international airport was closed for business. Worst of all, water, water ev­erywhere, and not a drop to drink.

Visions of the aftermath of the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, which threatened the very survival of New Orleans a decade and more ago, danced like sugar plums in certain Democratic heads. This was opportunity sent straight from heaven.

The wind had hardly subsided, the tide barely receded, before certain politicians began demanding where was Donald Trump. With a little luck, they might render the president a feeble caricature of George W. Bush, who famously flew over New Orleans on his return from a visit to Prairie Chapel Ranch in Texas to inspect the damage from the luxury of Air Force One. The pilot dipped a portside wing to give the presi­dent a better view.

That was the myth, and George W. suffered mightily for it. He returned later, but a presidential visit in the immediate aftermath of disaster is the last thing first responders need, but a missing president is what the smart alecks in the media call "bad optics." There's a certain order of battle after the winds die.

First come the first responders, then the police, the fire department and the medics, followed closely by the Salvation Army with hot coffee and doughnuts. Then the churches - both Roman Catholic and several Protestant denominations - come with blan­kets, clothes, beans and rice, and always oceans of hot coffee. Then come the utility crews from surrounding states, arriving to stay for the long haul. It's all to a familiar formula. A day or two later the Red Cross bureaucracy arrives, armed with press releases with news of its heroic charity. Later still more religious aid, like Jewish charities, do their part.

There had to be a different formula for the rescue of Puerto Rico. There are no highways to an island, and the island was overwhelmed. The commonwealth, under financial stress and political strain for years, had little choice but to wait for the feds to arrive.

If you're hungry and thirsty, and your children are crying for supper, any wait seems an eternity. You can almost forgive Carmen Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, for her hysterics blaming Donald Trump. "We are dying," she cried at her famous press conference five days after the storm. "We are dying, and you are killing us with your inefficiency and your bureaucracy. This is what we got last night," she said of a stack of pallets of merchandise behind her in the photographs in press and tube. "Four pallets of water, three pallets of meals and 12 pallets of infant food, which I gave to the people of [the village of] Comerio, where people are drinking from a creek. I am done with being polite. I am done with being politically correct. I am mad as hell."

President Trump called her an ingrate, and she refined this later, if not actually apologizing, but her remarks - disputed by other, senior Puerto Rican officials - gave Democratic media on the mainland their talking points. Puerto Rico had been abandoned by the president and his administration. The government cared about the people in Texas and Florida, but Puerto Rico, not so much. The clear but unspoken implication was that he was probably rationing by race.

Chris Cuomo, in one much-remarked incident, tried to bait Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosello into joining him in a show of contempt for the president. "The president points to you," he said, "as someone who is providing proof that the effort on the ground is great, and you know there is stark contrast between the word 'great' and the conditions your people are living in." (Hint, hint.) It was an artless attempt at grand­standing, but cable news and particularly CNN hardly know how to do artful. Television knows how to do noise.

The governor didn't bite. "I have to say," Mr. Rosello replied, "that the [Trump] administration has responded to our petitions, that Brock Long, the director of FEMA [which co-ordinates aid] has been on the phone virtually all the time with me, checking on how things are going." By the end of the week not every thing but many things were going well, or nearly so. Puerto Rico, which has had a rough year, has a long struggle ahead. "Within the limita­tions," the governor says, "everyone has been 'all hands on deck'."

Good news for Puerto Rico was bad news only for certain politicians in Washington. Sad.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.