Of all the scandals plaguing the Trump administration, there is none more serious or more forgotten than the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Several thousand Americans died. Not because of the storm itself, but because of the botched recovery. Yet until very recently, government officials dodged all accountability by clinging to the lie that just a few dozen lives were lost.
We still don’t know the true death toll in Puerto Rico. A group of Harvard researchers estimate it could be close to 5,000. Another at George Washington University say it could be almost 3,000.
It should not take a group of researchers to figure out these numbers a year after the hurricane. The only reason for dodging the truth like this is to block all the awkward questions that follow: why did all those American citizens die, and who was responsible for their deaths?
Either number makes Maria far more deadly than Katrina, when the botched response effectively ended public support for the Bush administration.
The buck stops in the Oval Office, where the current occupant insists that his performance was faultless and the people who suffered are happy about thousands of dead friends and family.
“I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. We’re still helping Puerto Rico. The governor is an excellent guy. And he is very happy with the job we’ve done,” Donald Trump told reporters after the death toll rose exponentially from 64. “But we’ve put a lot of money and a lot of effort into Puerto Rico. And I think most of the people in Puerto Rico really appreciate what we’ve done.”
The only reason the president can get away with this kind of nonsense is because he’s being protected by Republican leaders in Congress.
After almost 3,000 civilians died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11 there were multiple hearings, investigations, reports and commissions. Everything from airport security to national security changed. But after a similar number of civilians died in Puerto Rico, there have been only two hearings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (Fema) administrator.
That’s in spite of the multiple contracting debacles by Fema that we already know about. There was the $156m food contract that went to an Atlanta contractor with a single employee, whose track record was so bad that the company was supposedly barred from getting new government cash. That contractor handed the job to a wedding caterer, who unsurprisingly couldn’t handle the work.
Fema wrote an additional $30m contract for half a million tarps to protect people from the rain, but the tarps never arrived because the two brothers running the newly-formed company had no idea how to source them. That represented a third of Fema’s spending on tarps at the time.
In one hearing, Fema administrator Brock Long said those bungled contracts were just a handful among many thousands of good ones. Perhaps he’ll use the same excuse to respond to the recent report from the Government Accountability office, that found that more than half of Fema’s employees were unqualified to do their job after Maria. The agency also couldn’t find enough Spanish speakers to help out. We don’t know how many more Fema scandals there are because the GOP leadership in Congress refuses to investigate further.
The organization tasked by Congress with leading in humanitarian disasters is actually a nonprofit: the American Red Cross. But the Red Cross somehow managed to spend less than half the money it raised to respond to Maria. By its own account, there is more than $32m leftover from the cash it received to help ease the suffering in Puerto Rico.
On a tropical island where people died from contaminated water, it is hard to understand the Red Cross spending, which included more than $6m in management fees and almost $6m in warehousing and freight costs. You can buy an entire warehouse outright in San Juan for less than half that sum.
For so many people to die, there need to be failures of leadership at every level of government and across the largest non-profits. That’s also true at the local level of the mayors, but especially true of the island’s governor, who seemed paralyzed by the scale of the disaster and the fear of upsetting the Trump administration. The electricity utility under his control inexplicably awarded a giant $300m contract to a small firm it found via LinkedIn.
The failure of local leaders should not be surprising. After Katrina, both the mayor of New Orleans and the Louisiana governor were late with their response and overwhelmed by the disaster. Only the federal government has the resources to mobilize and lead the vast response required by such catastrophes.
Of course this federal government has at its disposal the world’s most powerful military. Just don’t tell that to the commander-in-chief, who doesn’t seem to understand how his own forces can transport personnel and materiel across the planet. “Puerto Rico was actually more difficult because of the fact it’s an island,” Trump explained to reporters. “It’s much harder to get things onto the island.”
Harder, but not impossible. Not unless you don’t really care about the island: an indelible impression Trump left behind when he played golf and tweeted about the NFL through the critical days after Maria wrecked part of his own country.
Puerto Rico’s problems did not start with Trump or Maria. They are ultimately the result of the island’s status as a colony in all but name. Without full representation in Congress, it is much easier to ignore its suffering, and to cover up its scandals. Congress can cap its poverty programs such as Snap benefits (or food stamps), and crush its economy through trade deals and tax changes, or by leaving the extortionate Jones Act in place. Until Puerto Rico becomes a full state – or joins another state – it will be treated as poorly as every other colony in history.
The blame for ignoring Puerto Rico extends to the media, which rapidly lost interest in the island just as the real story began. The bulk of the deaths happened after the reporters got their videos of broken trees and flooded streets, when they moved on to the next gun massacre, the next corporate sex abuse scandal, and the next outrageous Trump tweet.
Those other stories were obviously important. We should of course be reading about mass shootings and #MeToo. We should demand to know more about all the scandals involving Russia, corruption, and illegal campaign donations.
But when it comes to this White House, we supposedly care about those stories because we want to see good government in place. And the fundamental test of good government is to keep your citizens safe.
The more we get distracted, the easier it is to hide the deaths of thousands of our fellow citizens. As the hurricane season roars back to life, it is hard to say that we are better prepared for the next disaster when we have failed to respond honestly to the last.
They say the coverup is often worse than the crime, and in political scandals that may well be true. But in the case of Puerto Rico, there is nothing that compares to the incompetence and inhumanity that led to thousands of American deaths.