Schwartz: Trump’s Puerto Rico statement is too little, too late

Alex Schwartz, Assistant Opinion Editor

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced he will travel to Puerto Rico next week to offer the island support in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The statement came a full six days after the hurricane made landfall on the island. During that time, Puerto Ricans have experienced unprecedented destruction, flooding and power loss. Eighty percent of the island’s agricultural industry is in shambles, suffering an estimated loss of $780 million in crop yields. Electricity and communications throughout the island are virtually nonexistent. To say the island is in crisis would be an understatement.

Yet, Trump’s Tuesday statement was his first mention of the administration’s commitment to the U.S. territory’s recovery after the storm hit. For four days after Maria’s landfall, he tweeted heavily about the NFL, bashing players for peacefully protesting police brutality and racism in America. There was absolutely no mention of the situation in Puerto Rico, which was worsening by the hour.

On Sept. 19, the day before the storm hit, Trump tweeted, “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you- will be there to help!” Yet another affirmation of the administration’s supposed commitment to supporting Puerto Rico came the night the hurricane hit, when he tweeted to the governor of Puerto Rico: “We are with you and the people of Puerto Rico. Stay safe! #PRStrong.” One would think that given these statements of support during the early stages of the storm, the administration would have outlined a plan in the storm’s wake to expedite federal disaster relief funds to an island more than three million Americans call home. The administration should have suggested that concerned mainland Americans donate to humanitarian efforts or, at the very least, urged them — as is seemingly customary among conservative politicians — to keep their fellow Americans in their “thoughts and prayers.”

But for the four days following Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico, Trump’s tweets bore no mention whatsoever of the island or the crisis it was facing. There was no mention of its decimated crops or collapsed infrastructure, no call to donate to relief efforts, no briefing on the administration’s plan of action following the storm. Whether or not the president actually assisted recovery efforts during that time would not excuse the fact that he willingly diverted his and the nation’s focus away from a horrific natural disaster and toward yet another childish Twitter feud. Instead of raising awareness about Puerto Rico, he spent the weekend race-baiting on Twitter. Only on Monday night did he finally mention the dire situation in Puerto Rico in a series of tweets, at the same time somehow managing to sneak in a dig at Wall Street banks.

While Trump’s response to the summer’s other destructive hurricanes, including Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, have also garnered criticism for lacking empathy for disaster victims, his utter lack of response to the crisis in Puerto Rico has revealed something far more problematic.

Trump was relatively swift to respond to widespread flooding in Houston, but he stayed silent for days following utter destruction in San Juan. Both cities are in America; why, then, were these responses so different? Perhaps it was the abundance of “Make America Great Again” hats in Texas as opposed to the lack thereof in Puerto Rico. Or perhaps he doesn’t see the island’s residents as deserving of attention as mainland Americans (even though they are just as American as those affected by Harvey and Irma).

Whatever the reason for Trump’s extremely delayed response to Maria, it is indicative of the tendency of Americans to disproportionately ignore natural disasters when they happen in the global south. During the coverage of Irma, Florida got much more attention than the tiny, disadvantaged Caribbean islands the storm also plowed through. While Western nations must acknowledge that natural disasters disproportionately affect a variety of nations and populations in the global south, it’s sad to see that even Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S., is being given the same treatment.

Trump has finally broken his silence after Hurricane Maria, and will hopefully devote more effort to Puerto Rico’s long and difficult recovery. But that doesn’t excuse his lack of leadership in a crisis and unfair treatment of an already embattled island.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at alexschwa[email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.