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 that 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 hardly a drop to drink.
Visions 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 imaginations in the nation’s capital. 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. A presidential visit in the immediate aftermath of disaster is the last thing the 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 the first responders, 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 — with blankets, clothes, beans and rice, and always oceans of hot coffee. A day or two later the Red Cross bureaucracy arrives, armed with press releases with news of its heroic charity. Then come the utility crews from surrounding states, arriving to stay for the long haul. It’s all to a familiar formula.
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.”
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 it was probably about 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 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 and transparent attempt at grandstanding, but cable news and particularly CNN hardly know how to do artful. Television only knows how to do noise, and the governor didn’t bite.
“I have to say,” he 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 things — not every thing but many things — were going well. 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 for certain politicians in Washington.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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