Thirteen years ago almost to this day, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, turning New Orleans into an underwater dystopia. All told, more than a million people were displaced, eight hundred thousand homes left without electricity, and nearly two thousand people killed.
There seemed to be little to no preparation for the coming disaster, exacerbating the eventual chaos. Then it took four days for George W. Bush, then on vacation, to make his way to the city, first flying over the disaster zone surveying the carnage before finally stepping foot on Louisiana soil, all while TVs beamed footage of Bush strumming a guitar in San Diego, giving a speech defending the Iraq War, and sharing a cake with John McCain. Tens of thousands of people were left stranded for days in the Louisiana Superdome without food, water, toilets, or other supplies, and once the recovery effort did begin, it was slow and strikingly racist.
The whole episode was a moral and political catastrophe that left a lasting stain on Bush’s presidency and sent his approval ratings plummeting to the low forties just a year after his re-election. Bush’s failure to muster the power of the presidency to save the lives of thousands of Americans — exactly the kind of activity he had staked his political career on, at least when it involved invading other countries — became arguably the biggest scandal of a scandal-filled administration, a benchmark for infamy that Obama’s opponents spent eight years trying to find an analogue for.
As horrendous as this all was, it’s still not as bad as what’s happened to Puerto Rico under Trump.
The Best People
Let’s review what’s happened since September 20 last year, when 155-mile-per-hour winds, twenty-inch rainfall, and flash floods wreaked havoc on the island, knocking out its entire electrical grid and leaving more than three million people without access to clean water, food, and medical supplies.
After declaring an emergency the following day, Trump set off that night for a long weekend at his private golf club in New Jersey, at one point taking a break from his break to attend a campaign rally in Alabama. Members of the administration, including Trump himself, seemingly took a vow of silence on the subject of the hurricane. Trump held a meeting the day after, but only to discuss his Muslim travel ban, and as first responders struggled to cope with the chaos on the ground, he spent his long weekend tweeting at Kim Jong Un and the NFL.
It took days for government officials to meet with the island’s mayors and other representatives. It took eight days for Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, the three-star general in charge of the military response, to be appointed, and he complained that there weren’t enough troops and vehicles available. While the US had mobilized three hundred military helicopters and twenty-two thousand troops within two weeks to deal with the Haitian earthquake years before, after eight days only 4,400 troops and forty helicopters were operating in Puerto Rico. Less than half of its National Guard had been activated.
Thousands of containers full of food, medicine, and other supplies languished at ports, unable to be transported. It took Trump eight days to waive the Jones Act, an antiquated law barring foreign-flagged ships from taking aid to the island, substantially longer than it took him to do the same for relief efforts in Texas and Florida shortly before. As Trump explained, “a lot of people that work in the shipping industry” were against waiving the law, while his press secretary simply claimed it wasn’t necessary.
The president’s personal reaction to the crisis was breathtakingly callous. When he finally weighed in on the disaster, it was to blame the botched relief effort on the commonwealth’s “broken infrastructure and massive debt,” which he said “must be dealt with.” After the San Juan mayor lashed out at a Trump official’s claim that the US response was a “good news” story, Trump attacked her in an eighteen-tweet rant that, among other things, suggested Puerto Ricans were lazy and “want everything to be done for them.” Less than a month after the hurricane hit, he seemingly threatened to pull FEMA, the military, other first responders off the island, saying they couldn’t be there “forever.”
It took Trump twelve days to actually set foot in Puerto Rico — three times as long as it took Bush to visit New Orleans. When he did, he stayed for only four hours, leaving an hour early, and taking part in a video op that saw him distributing much-needed supplies by simply tossing paper towels into a throng of residents corralled before him, as if throwing chum to a school of fish.
And this was all just the first month.
The administration had to be constantly pressured to act. The USNS Comfort, a thousand-bed naval medical ship used in previous disasters, sat in a base for two weeks while a Colorado man started a petition to have it dispatched. It was deployed for fifty-three days once the worst period of medical emergencies had passed, and admitted an average of only six patients a day. Meanwhile, a group of senators had to ask FEMA to authorize the full reconstruction aid the Puerto Rican government had asked for two weeks earlier, and which had quickly been approved in other disasters.
The government’s operation seemed a hotbed of graft. There was the Puerto Rican energy authority’s questionable $300 million contract with Whitefish, a company with little experience and only two employees, whose CEO knew interior secretary Ryan Zinke because it was based in his home town, and which was backed by a private equity firm headed by a major Trump donor. Then FEMA gave a $156 million contract to provide thirty million meals to an Atlanta company with one employee, which delivered only fifty thousand of those meals, and for which it was still paid $255,000.
FEMA’s efforts were flawed from start to finish. Local officials complained of stifling bureaucracy and “brutal disorganization.” FEMA failed to deliver promised equipment such as tarps and generators; residents relied instead on private donations and activists for supplies. The scope of the agency’s disorganization was laid out in a report released this year, which found it had planned for a more limited disaster than the island-wide one that eventuated.
In accordance with Trump’s warning that responders couldn’t stay “forever,” FEMA seemed eager to draw down its involvement as soon as possible. In November, FEMA, the Puerto Rican governor, and the Pentagon jointly decided to send Buchanan home, accompanied by a withdrawal of troops and helicopters, even as many residents continued to lack power and water. As early as January this year, with thousands of residents still dependent on its food and water rations, FEMA announced it was ending such aid, only to quickly reverse this decision upon receiving a barrage of criticism.
In May, the Army Corps of Engineers, operating at the behest of FEMA, had to end its work fixing the island’s electric grid even as more than sixteen thousand people remained without power. “It’s not in our culture to walk away from a mission when it hasn’t been fully accomplished, but we follow orders,” an Army Corps of Engineers official said. A month later, FEMA ended its emergency shelter program for Puerto Rican families, many with nowhere to go, with New York officials estimating that hundreds would end up in homeless shelters.
Meanwhile, the federal government has compounded this misery. The GOP tax bill passed last year that was heavily pushed by Trump treats mainland companies in Puerto Rico as if they’re operating in foreign countries, imposing a 12.5 percent tax on income from intellectual property — particularly hurtful when the Puerto Rican economy is heavily dependent on medical manufacturing. This is on top of a 10 percent minimum tax on income for US companies on foreign soil, which is how Puerto Rico is treated in tax law. Both threaten to lead to an exodus of mainland companies from the island.
And as of August, after a nearly year-long period that’s seen the emergence of health, water, and suicide crises on the island, the Puerto Rican government is going forward with slashing cuts to Medicaid at the behest of the federal government. Adding insult to injury, the debt the island is trying to cut exists largely because the federal government spends dramatically less on Medicaid for Puerto Rico, a mere “territory,” than it does for the fifty states.
And now we learn that the death toll from Hurricane Maria, measured from September 2017 to February 2018, was nearly three thousand, almost forty-seven times the original estimate of sixty-four. For perspective, around 1,833 people were killed by Hurricane Katrina, while around 2,753 died in the World Trade Center on September 11.
The Biggest Scandal
The Trump administration doesn’t shoulder all the blame here. The Puerto Rican government is also responsible, and the fact that the US was struck by two other hurricanes shortly before Maria devastated Puerto Rico no doubt sapped resources. And Trump’s attempt to shift blame by pointing to Puerto Rico’s frayed infrastructure, as self-serving as it is, is based on a kernel of truth: it’s the product of systematic, long-term neglect by one administration after the other.
But it’s impossible to survey the events of the past year in Puerto Rico, particularly in comparison with the relatively successful relief efforts in Texas and Florida shortly before, and not come away with the conclusion that the severity of the hurricane and the number of dead were both made worse by the incompetent government response to it. That’s not to mention the way Trump’s heartless statements about Puerto Rico and its people have served as a kick to the gut.
In any other administration, the death of thousands of Americans and subsequent neglect of millions more through a policy often resembling willful government incompetence would be a defining, career-ending scandal. For Bush, it ultimately was.
Yet one can’t shake the feeling that the travesty that’s unfolded in Puerto Rico simply doesn’t have the salaciousness of the president’s many sex scandals, or the intrigue of whatever may have transpired between his campaign and Russia, even as reporting on it has been consistently vigilant. Regardless of how it registers in the public imagination, make no mistake: this is the biggest scandal of the Trump administration.