Puerto Rico disaster response a disaster

Puerto Rico disaster response a disaster
© Getty Images

President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE and acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke seem to be incredibly tone deaf as they keep congratulating themselves for a job well done on the Puerto Rico disaster response, which has been, well, disastrous.

Duke’s comment that Puerto Rico is a “good news story” has gotten a lot of play, but it has caused a lot of pain.


Puerto Rico is an island of 3.5 million American citizens. It has been in recession for the past 10 years. The poverty rate is at a dire 45 percent, and that was before Hurricane Maria. That number will skyrocket.


The electric grid in Puerto Rico was old and fragile. In a good week, Puerto Rican residents would have power five out of seven days a week, on and off throughout the year.

Puerto Rico has always been in the dangerous path of many of the tropical storms-turned-hurricanes that make their way to our continent from the coast of Africa several times a year during Hurricane season.

Hurricanes are predictable, and Hurricane Maria showed up on the radar even as Hurricane Irma was hurling her devastation toward the Florida peninsula.

As such, the misery of our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico (literally for me, my brother and his family live in San Juan) could have been much more preventable than the Trump administration will admit.

Immediately after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Trump declared those states national disaster zones and waived the Jones Act, an archaic, 100-year-old law that states that any goods ferried port-to-port in the U.S. must be carried by American vessels and crew. The Jones Act makes goods in Puerto Rico almost twice as expensive as goods on the mainland.

It took seven days, several official letters from the governor of Puerto Rico and several members of Congress for Trump to finally do it. Why didn’t this happen immediately?

Disturbingly, Trump has yet to name the whole island a national disaster zone. He has named only a number of municipalities, as opposed to the whole island.

This makes no sense.

It also took eight days for Trump to name a 3-star general to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts to ensure the kind of coordination that is vastly lacking in the process thus far. There are tons of containers at Puerto Rico’s ports holding precious cargo of food, medical supplies and life-saving water, all just waiting and rotting in the hot sun. Why wasn’t a military general named to coordinate efforts on day one?

The administration says it has 10,000 FEMA personnel on the ground surveying and planning the recovery. First, no resident that I have heard from or that has talked to the media has seen any FEMA representative that is giving out desperately needed food or water.

Millions of residents lost their homes, but many have the shells of their houses standing as their roofs were blown off by Maria’s fury. Where are the tarps that residents can use as makeshift roofs while they can rebuild properly? Even tarps were made readily available during the disastrous recovery efforts of Hurricane Katrina.

The administration says military personnel are now arriving on the island to provide much-needed help. Where were they immediately after the Hurricane?

The earthquake in Haiti garnered a much quicker, heftier and more effective response to that tragedy, which was unforeseen and could not have been predicted or planned for. After two days, Haiti had a U.S. general coordinating efforts with more than 20,000 military personnel on the ground.

Trump’s team says Puerto Rico presents particular obstacles and challenges because of the lack of communications capabilities and inland roads that are clear enough for travel. As a result, their FEMA reps have not been able to get to the most remote and vulnerable residents in rural mountain areas in the center of the island.

If this is true, then why is it that reporters from almost every major news outlet have been able to get to these residents, interview them and share their devastating images while help is choked off by incompetent bureaucracy?

These are reporters, camera crews and producers. They are not people who are trained in cataclysmic disaster relief operations, yet they are getting to those who need the help when the supposed pros cannot?

There is no excuse for this shameful behavior, though excuses are coming quickly — as are the self-congratulatory kudos.

The Trump administration says they are doing everything they possible can at the moment. But if that is true, then there is no other excuse for the inadequacy of the effort other than sheer incompetence, ignorance and willful neglect.

Incompetence because all of this could have been planned for. We all knew Maria was coming. The storm was not a surprise. But the dire warnings from officials on the island were either ignored or not taken seriously. Everyone knew that power would be gone for four to six months. Under these circumstances, the most vulnerable are always the victims.

Undoubtedly, they have been in Puerto Rico where the death toll is being grossly underreported. Reports of hospital morgues at capacity and deceased residents still in their loved one’s homes because no one is available to come pick up the bodies are horrifying to say the least.

Perhaps if this president was as preoccupied with saving the lives of 3.5 million American citizens as he is with insulting African-American athletes who are simply exercising their First Amendment rights, maybe our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico would not be in such dire straits.

There is no excuse for the treatment and disrespect these Americans have had to endure. The president needs to disable his Twitter account, stop patting himself on the back and start showing leadership, solutions and results. If he doesn’t, the fact that Maria is becoming Trump’s Katrina will be the least of his worries.

Maria Cardona is a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a Democratic strategist and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.