The U.S. president spends five hours visiting the island ruined by Hurricane Maria.
Thirteen days after the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Maria, Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday, generating more controversy than relief. The U.S. president, who visited Texas after Hurricane Harvey within two days, and Florida after Hurricane Irma within three days, did not announce any measures of concrete support and focused on praising himself, applauding his administration’s “incredible” efforts in assisting the victims and in taking the first steps toward reconstruction of the devastated infrastructure of the Caribbean country. Touching a sore spot in a devastated city, Trump even reproached the local government for the huge financial debt that it bears, and said soberly, “Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.”
Trump arrived at noon at a military base in the capital, San Juan. He made his remarks together with the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, then took a helicopter flight to observe the disaster. Finally, he visited a church in Guaynabo, an affluent municipality that was less affected than other places in the area surrounding San Juan, which is poor and was crushed by the hurricane, and is thus in very serious condition as there is no electricity or access to water or food. About 5 p.m., he got into Air Force One and returned to Washington, leaving the locals feeling generally humiliated after he tactlessly threw paper towels at the people of Guaynabo as if it were a basketball game.
At that point, Trump, whom critics in the U.S. and Puerto Rico blame for not acting swiftly in the face of the island’s humanitarian crisis, promised, “We’re going to help you out.”
Almost two weeks after the hurricane, the island remains chaotic because of the damage, the shortages and the logistical inefficiency of local and federal, civilian and military authorities. Fewer than 7 percent of Puerto Ricans have electricity, and only 22 percent of the telecommunications towers are operating. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans barely have access to drinking water and fuel is scarce, but considerably less so than a week ago. Around 9,000 people are in shelters, although many more have lost their homes. Most of the people are staying at homes of relatives or friends.
“It is good that he comes to see how we are, to realize that we need more help fast,” San Juan resident Jorge Luis Pelullera, 43, who lost his home, said this afternoon. His wife, Mari Luz Serrano, 33, is seven months pregnant and has a one-year-old girl. Another victim of the natural disaster, 31-year-old Coral Segarra, who has become homeless, hoped that by contemplating the tragedy, Trump would gain “open-mindedness and awareness that Puerto Rico really needs urgent economic assistance and emergency health resources.”
The island has a debt of $73 billion, and this year it filed for bankruptcy. That was the situation in Puerto Rico before the hurricane season. And the arrival of Hurricane Maria with its winds of 250 kilometers per hour (approximately 155 miles per hour) and its torrential rains – the strongest hurricane to hit the island since 1929 – has reduced everything to unsustainable levels, destroying 100 percent of the electricity grid, leaving more than 50,000 families who lived in precarious houses that have been destroyed now homeless, damaging the road network, making drinking water almost a luxury product and paralyzing economic and industrial activity altogether; as if instead of having passed through a cyclone, Puerto Rico had been bombed.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has compared the tragedy to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and in each statement, asserts that Puerto Rico (a territory of 3.4 million inhabitants) will not be able to recover without U.S. aid. The Washington-based National Hispanic Leadership Agenda estimates that the island will need about $70 billion to recover from the catastrophe and has called for a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico, alluding to the plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II.
This month, Congress is expected to approve an emergency fund for the island, but because of the president’s crushing references to the Puerto Rican administration’s debt, which he previously tweeted about days ago, one can assume that the winds do not blow in favor of a historical rescue, but of limited aid.
Trump acknowledged in his visit that Puerto Rico has suffered a severe shock, but at the same time, he stressed that on the positive side, the official death toll so far when compared to the more than 1,800 deaths that occurred during Hurricane Katrina, is not that high given the hurricane’s magnitude. “What is your death count?” Trump asked Rossello. “Sixteen,” the governor replied. (The figure has risen to 34 deaths since these statements.) “You can be very proud,” concluded the president, who was accompanied on his visit by his wife, Melania.
At the military base, Trump also met San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin, with whom he had a controversial exchange last weekend. Yulin had criticized what she considered a slow reaction from Washington to the Puerto Rico catastrophe, and Trump responded on Twitter lamenting her “poor leadership,” saying that there are leaders on the island who want everything “to be done” for them.
The president, who built his fortune in the real estate sector, also considered it appropriate to give advice to a country like Puerto Rico,* where almost half the population lives below poverty level and where, due to the lack of economic resources, it is common to find unstable houses made of wood with tin roofs. “The concrete holds up but the wood doesn’t,” Trump said.
*Editor’s note: Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory.