Presidents traditionally undertake a host of activities to set their citizens at ease during times of crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt held his fireside chats. President John F. Kennedy gave patriotic speeches extolling American courage and expressing ebullient optimism about the national spirit and its role in service to our country. President Donald J. Trump threw out the towels.
A week and a half after the disastrous hurricane had blown through and people were beginning to trickle out of storm shelters the President and his First Lady paid a hurried visit to the Enchanted Island. They brought along several cartons of toilet paper and paper towels. Bounty is the quicker-perker-upper you know. What better way to perk up the spirits of the embattled natives than to toss them paper towels? To be perfectly frank, vacuum cleaners wouldn’t have done the trick. Power was still out all over the island. Besides you can’t go around tossing vacuum cleaners at your unincorporated territorial constituents. It isn’t dignified.
Was President Trump a little slow on the uptake following the natural disaster? You be the judge. He didn’t so much as hold a Situation Room Briefing until six days after the island was devastated by wind and rain. Give him his due, though. Throughout the aftermath of the storm President Trump continued to tweet to his faithful followers that we were doing a great job, a tremendous job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Fake News refuses to acknowledge the amazing work that has been done by our Great military and FEMA but I can tell you the people of Puerto Rico love us.
By comparison President Obama, upon hearing of the massive earthquake in Haiti (which scored a seven on the Richter scale), scrambled the military. Eight thousand troops were headed to the island of Hispaniola within two days. For the record neither Haiti nor The Dominican Republic, the two countries who share the island, are U. S. Territories. Twenty-two thousand troops and thirty-two ships arrived in Haiti within two weeks carrying vital supplies. To the best of my knowledge none of them carried paper towels.
Here’s another interesting data point. President Trump’s arch-rival, the dastardly villainous Hillary Clinton, was the first public figure to call for the mobilization of the only hospital ship on the East Coast, the USNS Comfort, four days after Maria made landfall. The ship wasn’t deployed for two more days, didn’t leave port for an additional two days and didn’t reach Puerto Rico until Tuesday, October 3, eleven days after Maria made landfall. The Navy blamed a mix-up in communication for the delay. Although Puerto Rico had piers that routinely serviced cruise ships carrying as many as thirty-five hundred tourists, the Navy didn’t think Puerto Rico could handle a boat as big as theirs. Still, even with all the delays, the hospital ship made it to Puerto Rico the same day as the President and the First Lady flew in on Air Force One.
To his credit, I’m sure President Trump had other fish to fry. September is a busy month for golf.
The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016 (PROMESA) established an oversight board, a process for restructuring debt, and expedited procedures for approving critical infrastructure projects in the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico because Strom Thurmond made it illegal for Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy. The Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) had been struggling with increased debt. They’d experienced a 30% reduction in their workforce between 2012 and 2017. Whereas Luis Muñoz Marin promised to bring prosperity to the island, PROMESA promised to bring austerity to the island. Tighten those belts, boys. We got $123 billion in debt to payoff.
The primary intent of PROMESA was to make sure bond holders (see earlier notes on vulture funds) got paid off. Nonetheless one of the larger hedge funds immediately filed a law suit saying the bankruptcy-like law violated the Constitution. All this political posturing took place six months before either of the hurricanes struck the island. You can see where the priorities of the billionaires lay. Even before the storms hit, the future prosperity of Puerto Rico was problematic. The jewel in the Caribbean crown had lost its luster.
Maria came onshore at the Southeast corner of the island at 4:00 am on September 20, 2017 with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour. The 50-mile wide storm traveled in a Northwesterly direction, exiting the island at Arecibo. The island was lashed with wind and rain for a total of thirty hours. Rainfall amounts totaling as much as four feet deluged the entire island. Everybody lost power. Roads flooded, roofs sailed away, shelters were crowded, communications were disrupted. Puerto Rico was quite literally cut off from the rest of the world.
Back up a step. Did I say one hurricane away from disaster? Make that two hurricanes away from disaster. In early September of 2017 Hurricane Irma formed in the Atlantic near the Cape Verde Islands. It was slated to become the strongest storm on record ever to exist in the open Atlantic basin with sustained winds in excess of 157 miles per hour (Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale). Irma blew through the U. S. Virgin Islands on its way to Puerto Rico, dropping twelve inches of rain on St. Thomas and causing wide spread damage.
Irma delivered a glancing blow to Puerto Rico’s north shore the next day as a Category 5 hurricane because the eye of the storm stayed out to sea. Nonetheless it killed three people and left a million Puerto Ricans without power for days. FEMA responded by clearing out the Caribbean Distribution Center warehouse in Puerto Rico to aid the victims of Irma. To make matters worse Hurricane Harvey had just pummeled Texas and FEMA was running dangerously low on funds. So, I guess you might say three hurricanes all told.
Irma continued on to hit Florida as a Category 4 hurricane., knocking out power to 75% of the electrical customers in the Sunshine State. That was the big news of the day. Meanwhile Maria was forming out to sea. When Maria hit the Enchanted Island full force two weeks later as a Category 4 storm, 80,000 Puerto Ricans were still without power.
FEMA later opined that it’s hard to plan for hurricanes. It’s harder still to plan for three hurricanes that hit in a three-week time-frame. But, under the circumstances, I think we were remarkably successful.
Which is easy to say when you’re sitting home safe in Washington, D. C. When you’re cowering in a storm shelter in downtown San Juan, success is a relative thing.
Let’s tick off the high points.
Inadequate planning. Check.
Finger pointing. Check.
Lack of preparedness. Check.
Lack of infrastructure. Check.
Depleted budget. Check.
Lack of leadership at the top (more of which later on). Checkmate.
And that brings us kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Let’s review the facts before we plunge forward.
Six hundred years ago Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the shores of a lovely island populated by a peaceful civilization of Arawak Indians (the Taino) who were mostly agrarian and who lived in harmony alongside a warlike tribe (the Caribe) whose main goal in life was to answer the question “What’s eating you?” Seeing that everything was hunky dory, Chris claimed the lands for Ferdy and Bella.
During the ensuing fifty years a combination of disease, slavery and outright murder reduced the indigenous population to around zero which was fine because Spain was getting overcrowded and those folks needed a place to migrate to. European nations claimed ownership of virtually every square kilometer of South, Central and North America despite the fact that the lands were already occupied by lots of dark-skinned people. In fact, those pesky Europeans fought among themselves for the right to defeat the natives.
Big Sugar dominated the Puerto Rican economy until the bottom fell out of the market. Spain’s military took it on the chin. The new kid on the block (USA) took Spain to the mat and won the right to rule the Enchanted Island. The brash newcomers from the north took over the reins of government and figured out how to ratchet up the value of Puerto Rico, both in terms of politics and from the standpoint of raw revenue. One of the native-born youngsters went up to Washington, D. C., got a college education and came back to reinvent his homeland. He racked up a lot of debt in the process, but he managed to transform the island into the brightest jewel in the Caribbean crown.
Rich folks from all over the world bought up the best properties on the island and turned them into cash cows. Tourists from far and wide flocked to the island to spend their hard-earned dollars and to dis the natives. The overlords (us) gave tax breaks to the rich and the rich responded by building factories and racking up more debt. Then the overlords took away the tax benefits and the rich packed up their tents and went back home.
So, in a nutshell, here’s where things stood. Despite the smiles of insouciance pasted on the facades of opulent resorts owned by offshore billionaires, the Enchanted Island was one hurricane away from disaster.