Puerto Rico needs federal assistance to recover from coronavirus, natural disasters
In April 2019, President Trump launched a public relations campaign designed to make Americans forget that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. He complained on Twitter that Puerto Ricans seeking disaster aid “only take from USA” and “hurt our farmers and states.” His spokesman, Hogan Gidley, referred to Puerto Rico as “that country” not once but twice in a subsequent interview about what the president’s initial comments meant.
None of this was accidental. On Trump’s watch, in addition to the coronavirus pandemic, Puerto Rico has faced the terrible destruction of Hurricane Maria and several rounds of earthquakes that have caused loss of life and billions of dollars in property damage. Rather than mustering support for the island and the millions of U.S. citizens who live there, the president has dismissed the crisis and stoked right-wing grievance against the people of Puerto Rico.
Indeed, the president’s administration has not failed to help Puerto Rico, in the sense of earnestly attempting something it ultimately couldn’t or didn’t achieve. It has chosen, very deliberately, to leave Puerto Ricans to suffer without trying to assist them.
This has become especially acute in recent days. A magnitude 5.4 earthquake struck a few miles off the Puerto Rican coast on May 2, starting a chain of tremors that continues to hit the southern half of the island. More than 700 earthquakes, large and small, have battered Puerto Rico in the last month, with more than 200 coming in the past week alone. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard much about the federal response to this ongoing disaster, you’re not alone.
Some Puerto Ricans who lost their homes in these or other recent natural disasters are still living in temporary housing during the coronavirus pandemic. The president would never think of ignoring this kind of human suffering in a state he considered important to his reelection. But he thinks nothing of watching Puerto Ricans fight for survival every day with no serious federal aid.
This is why I’m urging my colleagues in the Senate to approve the Puerto Rico Earthquake Supplemental (H.R. 5687), which the House of Representatives has already passed. The bill invests in housing and infrastructure and revitalizes the Puerto Rican economy – exactly the kinds of straightforward assistance the president has so far denied the island.
The need is especially acute as the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic compound the damage done by these natural disasters. Congress passed the initial CARES Act to respond to the coronavirus pandemic on March 30. It took more than a month for the Department of the Treasury to start providing stimulus funding to local governments. While most Americans on the mainland received their deposits weeks ago, many Insular Area residents have yet to receive any assistance.
Puerto Rico and some other territorial governments did the responsible thing by enacting stay-at-home orders almost two months ago, ahead of many of their mainland state counterparts. Without adequate federal assistance now, their economies cannot realistically be expected to hold out much longer.
Puerto Rico and the other territories have legitimate questions about why the Trump administration has failed to provide natural disaster recovery, to say nothing of a competent coronavirus response. The consequences of that failure, while apparently of no concern to the president himself, will be with the rest of us for many years to come. When a government openly ignores the needs of its own citizens, the damage is rarely limited to a single politician’s reelection cycle.
Grijalva is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.