Three weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory is locked in a desperate humanitarian crisis. At least 85 percent of the population still has no power — and many won't see it restored for up to six months. Tens of thousands of residents have little food and so little to drink they're siphoning water from rock formations to survive.
Amid that ongoing devastation affecting millions of Americans, the president of the United States this morning complained about the cost of rebuilding and threatened to cut off aid and emergency services to the island.
"We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!" Donald Trump tweeted a little after 7 a.m.
The callousness of that statement is difficult to overstate. The people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. They pay taxes — though, notably, they aren't allowed to vote for president — with the expectation that the federal government will be there for them in times of great need.
This is that time. The raw data marking the suffering in Puerto Rico is shocking: Thirty-five percent of residents still don't have clean water for drinking or bathing; of more than 5,000 miles of roads, only 400 have reopened to traffic. FEMA is providing about 200,000 meals a day — for about 2 million people desperate to eat.
"We are 1.8 million meals short,” one senior FEMA official told the Guardian yesterday. “That is why we need the urgency. And it’s not going away. We’re doing this much today, but it has to be sustained over several months.”
FEMA itself has projected months of intense work on the island simply to stave off a full-blown humanitarian tragedy. Yet the president is threatening to take that aid away. Why?
Because "a financial crisis looms largely of their own making," Trump tweeted, citing TV journalist Sharyl Attkisson. Puerto Rico's financial woes are deep and complex — a stew of horrible mismanagement by local governments that ballooned debts during a deepening recession and regressive U.S. laws dating to segregation-era politics.
But what does that financial situation have to do with saving the lives of the 3.4 million Americans who live there? Trump's comments are just the latest hint from a paper-towel-throwing demagogue heading a party whose first draft of relief efforts to the island actually came in the form of yet another potentially crippling loan.