Recovering from a natural disaster is never easy. It’s infinitely harder when federal emergency funds for rebuilding are subject to the whims, lies and misconceptions of a hostile president.
Puerto Rico finds itself hostage to President Donald Trump’s flights of fancy as it struggles to recover from the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The latest slap came Monday when the Senate failed to pass a disaster aid bill after Trump’s refusal to give Puerto Rico any additional dollars. The bill contained funding for flood-ravaged Midwesterners.
In making his case, Trump said the island has already received $91 billion in federal aid. It has not. Puerto Rico has gotten $11.2 billion so far out of $41 billion allocated, with federal estimates that another $50 billion in recovery costs could emerge over the next 20 years.
Trump says Puerto Rico has received more emergency aid than any other place struck by a hurricane. It has not. Federal aid after 2005’s Katrina — which killed 1,833, compared with 3,000 who died in Puerto Rico — was $120 billion.
Worse has been Trump’s apparent refusal to accept that Puerto Ricans are Americans. They have been citizens since 1917. The island is a U.S. territory. But Trump has tweeted that Puerto Rico’s leaders “only take from the USA” and that our nation “Cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments.”
Trump has been sensitive to valid criticism that the federal government reacted too slowly to help Puerto Rico. The image lingers of the president finally visiting the island and cavalierly tossing paper towels to residents, as if launching T-shirts at a sports event.
Our nation always has responded to such emergencies. Americans volunteer time and expertise; Congress comes through with funding. The Senate bill included aid for victims of volcanoes in Hawaii, an earthquake in Alaska, wildfires in California and more. Puerto Rico is no different. Trump is right that careful oversight of spending is needed, but that’s true for every disaster.
Natural disasters present opportunities for improvement. Puerto Rico has a chance to rebuild its energy grid, and modernize it via its pledge to convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. But that won’t happen if the funding spigot is arbitrarily shut.
Puerto Rico still is struggling. Basic services still have not been restored. People still are rebuilding homes. Hurricane season is coming. The president must remember that the people of Puerto Rico are just like the rest of us. And they still need our help.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN NEWSDAY