Roundtable: Puerto Rico

The Roundtable is a discussion of news and events among Torchlight staff. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and links may have been added after the fact. This conversation happened on September 30. 

Tom Rich, Editor-in-Chief

Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s discussion of news and events. This has been a devastating hurricane season in the Atlantic, with many Caribbean islands badly damaged and the states of Florida and Texas suffering severe impacts. But the story of Puerto Rico has been especially prominent, as some 3 million American citizens suffer without clean water, electricity, food, or medical supplies. The federal government’s response to the disaster has been sharply criticized, with some calling it “Trump’s Katrina.” First question to the panel: is this response as bad as it’s being made out to be? Has the ball been well and truly dropped?

 

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor

I think this is even worse than Katrina.  Bush’s handling of that disaster was unconscionable, but his biggest problem was that the guy he put in charge of helping had no experience in disaster relief, and so the assistance took forever and coordination was incompetent and so on. It was just badly managed in a regular way.

Trump’s reaction has been spectacularly bad.  He has gone golfing, whined about NFL players kneeling during the anthem, basically all but stated they are going to gut the island for every penny they can get, blamed the governor of PR and Mayor of SJ for basically begging for help, and so on.  This is on top of the actual response of waiting a week before ordering in any assistance (especially military.  They have a hospital ship called the USS Comfort that’s basic function is to port in places where the hospitals cannot work for whatever reason.).  There were no resources staged beforehand, and oh by the way we _still_ don’t have a relief bill.  Probably because Trump wants PR to pay for his damn wall now as well.

These are American citizens, and it has been absolutely awful they way the President just does not seem to care. (I don’t think he actually does care, but that’s me).

 

Sam Dieffenwierth, Researcher

The initial handling was definitely flubbed. Like Chris said, the government didn’t stockpile resources beforehand, and the military took some time to arrive. I can forgive the government for not making Puerto Rico a priority, though- Harvey caused immense destruction on the mainland and I don’t think anyone thought or planned that TWO category five hurricanes would hit the island in less than a month. What we’re seeing now is catch-up.

 

Christo

Look, I will give him the “no one could predict 2 cat 5s” thing.  But this is more than that.  He keeps talking about PR’s debt, like that matters right now.  It took him a couple of days to waive the Jones act (it was waived preemptively for Texas and Florida for their Hurricanes).  He doesn’t even make empty statements like “we are keeping tabs” or “focusing on the problem” or whatever.  He cannot bring himself to pretend to care.  I don’t expect him to personally carry pallets of water, I expect him to friggin’ lead.

I mean, he was crowing about his crowd size in Houston.  It’s not like this has been inconsistent cruelty.  It’s just that PR is even worse, for some reason.

 

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

Catch up or not, the response to PR has not been the same response we gave even to Haiti, which isn’t part of our country. Trump hasn’t remotely given this his full attention and government resources were left idle while American citizens died in PR hospitals because they didn’t have enough diesel, like this was a fucking Mad Max movie and not the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth. It’s disgraceful.

Oh, and one thing about the Jones Act that you mentioned, Christo. (By the way, the Jones Act says that ships moving between American ports must be American, preventing additional avenues of aid from reaching PR.) PR officials petitioned for a year’s waiver and, after an inexcusable delay during which our President showed more concern for shipping interests, Trump granted a 10-day waiver. As if that’s all the help PR is going to need in response to a disaster that left 3 million people essentially without food, water, power, communications, and medical care.

 

Tom

There are certainly logistical problems with disaster response in Puerto Rico; it’s an island, so harder to evacuate, and you can’t count on people from unaffected areas driving down to volunteer. And the national disaster response apparatus was badly strained by Harvey and Irma. But it isn’t like the weather service wasn’t watching these hurricanes, and warning about what might happen. It wasn’t a SURPRISE that Puerto Rico got hit. Preparations could have been made, ships moved into position, and so on. And the spectacular inability of the administration to say “we’re with you, Puerto Rico, we’re coming, here’s the timeline” is both inexcusable and baffling.

 

Josh

I don’t think it’s baffling at this point. This is white supremacy at work.

 

Sam

What.

 

Tom

That leads us toward the second question of the day, Josh. The responses to Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida weren’t particularly reviled; it wasn’t until Puerto Rico that the nation’s emergency response sort of crumpled. Do we lay that solely at the fact that the Americans in Puerto Rico are primarily Spanish-speaking and their territory isn’t a state?

 

Christo

I think it’s mostly that Trump probably doesn’t think of PR as part of America.  I mean, they didn’t vote for him.

 

Josh

In 2005 it was Kanye saying the president didn’t care about black people; in 2017 it’s retired Lt. General Russel Honore saying Trump doesn’t care about people of color:

 

I don’t think you can divorce PR’s history of being neglected and abused by its country from its racial makeup, and I don’t think you can do that with the current administration’s response. It’s pretty clear at this point that Trump is a virulent racist, a man who stokes racial grievances for political gain, and someone whose few strongly held positions are all related to hurting racial minorities. This is just another example of his personal distaste and lack of empathy for people who aren’t white resulting in real harm.

 

Sam

“Everything is a racist conspiracy.” It’s not just incompetence, folks, it’s -racist incompetence-

 

Christo

I don’t think he has much empathy for anyone, but PR is of no personal benefit to him, so he can’t bring himself to even pretend to make the shadow of an effort. Sorry Sam, on this one I am extremely pissed at the POTUS right now. He complained that the people of PR were “entitled” and “demanded that everyone do everything for them”, for gods’ sakes!

 

Sam

Okay? That doesn’t mean that the President’s chuckling at sad Puerto Ricans. Maybe the government’s prioritizing Harvey cleanup because the hurricane caused over $180 billion in damage and knocked out almost 20% of our nation’s oil refineries. With America’s cities three days away from starvation, getting them up and running before the shortage affects transport capacity is probably a top priority.

What happened and what’s happening in Puerto Rico sucks, but we’re not all-powerful anymore. We no longer have enough resources to respond to everything and a freakish amount of major hurricanes after a decade-long lull counts as one of those things.

 

Christo

Oh, we absolutely do have the resources. And what’s more, we have a moral necessity to help.  *These are Americans*.  They deserve all the protections that that directly implies and means.  This isn’t some far flung island in the middle of fucking nowhere, this is an Island in the caribbean that we can actually easily get to and assist, because it is a part of us. We have a very effective Navy.  People are starving, they need water (although from what I understand, conditions and the bottleneck are now improving, somewhat)  People died because hospitals didn’t have enough fuel.   All because Trump couldn’t be bothered to give the order to get to work.  It’s not like he would have to drive the boats himself.  He just tells the people that he wants the thing done, and they do the thing.  This is unacceptable in our country

And the president can’t be fucking bothered to simply not have a golf game this weekend (which, why the fuck is POTUS not doing work?) He won’t go until Tuesday.

 

Josh

It’s not like Trump came out and said, “We can’t afford to help Puerto Rico, our resources are strained to the breaking point by these hurricanes.” He blamed them for their infrastructure, told them to bootstrap it and then said the disaster response was doing fine. FEMA has plenty of money right now and Congress could easily authorize more–but Trump hasn’t even requested that yet and said he wouldn’t until mid-October. This isn’t a resource problem, it’s a logistical problem informed by a crucial lack of giving a shit.

Trump has been in office for almost 9 months now, and every week we’ve watching him flail through a crisis of his own making, all the while wondering when there’d be a crisis he didn’t engender that would require him to actually do well. Here it is, and he’s failed, and people are suffering as a result. This is the consequence of electing a moronic, asshole, racist, and I’m truly afraid of what we’re going to see as more of these crises happen.

 

Sam

By “effective Navy”, you mean the navy that rammed two cargo ships within the past year because the officers were asleep? Things aren’t as dandy in the U.S. as you think they are. There are still big piles of rotting trash covering sidewalks in Texas. There are still telephone poles and downed trees blocking roads. There are still people living under tarps in the ruins of their homes. And this is on the mainland, a month out, in one of the wealthiest states in the Union. If the government doesn’t even have enough resources to help mainlanders, how is it supposed to flock to the aid of people living on a flattened island in the Caribbean at the same time? The Jones Act is a band-aid if ports and roads are destroyed. A hospital ship’s nice to have, but how many people would it save if there’s three million needing help?

 

Josh

There’s three million citizens in PR, not three million hospital patients in need of assistance.

 

Tom

For me, the biggest problem here is the lack of leadership. I can accept strained resources, I can expect logistical difficulties, I can accept the prioritizing of disasters; all of that makes sense to me, though I don’t think it explains a majority of the problems here. What I can’t accept is the complete lack of anything from the White House that looks like accepting that he has responsibility to lead and make decisions here; it’s constant buck-passing, and it’s not what I expect from a President.

We’re bumping up against our time today; final thoughts, everyone?

 

Christo [

Honore said it best: “The mayor’s living on a cot, and I hope the President has a good day at golf.”

 

Sam

The hurricanes aren’t his fault, but I’d expect him to at least stay on-message with “help is on the way, hang in there” platitudes. Going golfing is crass and reminds his base of the Obama days. Bad move.

 

Josh

Trump got elected in part because people were mad at the government’s ineffectiveness. If he was sincerely the right person to lead, this would be an excellent time to demonstrate just how effective government can be when its citizens are in need. If he were trying really hard and falling short, I wouldn’t be so angry at what we’re seeing happening right now. But his lack of concern is apparent in his words, his constant distractions and petty feuds, his scheduling decisions, and his overall management of this response. That’s unacceptable, and I can only hope people look back on this the way they did Katrina–the beginning of the end for the public’s remaining goodwill for the president.

 

Tom

And we’ll have to leave it at that: disappointment and frustration. Our hearts go out to the people of Puerto Rico, and everyone impacted by these hurricanes, and we encourage readers to donate what they can to relief efforts. Thanks, everyone, for a lively conversation!

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