Trump’s trip: Consoler in Chief or Annoyance in Chief
Donald Trump’s response to the humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico has been widely criticized. From his insensitive tweets where he blames Puerto Rico’s debt for their problems and not the hurricane, to his not so shocking revelation that the ocean does in fact make aid efforts to Puerto Rico more difficult than aid efforts in Texas.
His trip to Puerto Rico was touted as yet again another bumble by Trump, adding to the list of his failures to act presidentially. His big news moment from the visit was a video of him throwing paper towels at survivors. The president can be seen throwing paper towels into a crowd of people taking pictures on their phone. This was after he told survivors that he was proud that Hurricane Maria was not a “real catastrophe like Katrina.” He was also heard telling hurricane survivors that they did not need the flashlights he was handing out to them even though 93% of the island was still without power during his visit. While the president defends the paper towel gesture as “made up” and “fun” others, including Puerto Rican officials, call it disrespectful. The president also fell on his stand-by defense of calling out the media for the bad press, defending his actions by saying that the cheering upon his arrival was “incredible”. His words were possibly more insulting than the paper-towel throwing. This was not the moment for comparing disasters, and the comments came across as shaming the survivors rather than empathizing with them.
The question becomes why does the president think that cheering is a measurable defense of any action he might take? Does the fact that people greeted him by cheering mean that any action he took afterwards must be accepted by those people? Since when does cheering equal a blank check to do whatever you wish without repercussions?
Trump once again decried the ‘fake media’ for the bad press. The president seems to use this claim to remove any responsibility that may fall to him for his actions. Whenever he does anything somewhat disrespectful he calls out the ‘fake media’ for turning a good moment into an opportunity to make him look bad. However, this writer personally can’t think of any reason why throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors could ever be respectful. It turns a moment where the president should be showing humility and helping those less fortunate into a sports rally. He may as well have been shooting ‘I Survived Maria’ T-shirts from a tshirt cannon. “Nobody could have done what I’ve done for #PuertoRico with so little appreciation. So much work!” read a tweet from Trump. Critics of Trump, on the other hand, are upset at him for making the occasion ‘all about him’ and claim FEMA did the aid work, and Trump merely posed for pictures.
While Trump’s actions seem rather indefensible, there is one spot of good that seems to have come out of all of the nonsense. After rebuking Puerto Rico for their debt problems, blaming city officials for incompetence, accusing the mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan of standing idly by when in fact she was out in the streets with water up to her waist on a bullhorn helping her people, Trump has finally requested a larger aid package for Puerto Rico. The president has requested a further $4.9 billion in aid. Previously, Congress has only approved a 35 million dollar aid package, which is a small fraction of the estimated $49-90 billion in estimated damages caused by the hurricane.
Articles defending the president and FEMA for their poor deployment rely on the argument that FEMA does not usually take the lead in disaster situations, and leaves that to the state’s first responders and disaster response team. However, in Puerto Rico these people were also hit hard by the hurricane and needed help themselves. While this does take some of the heat off of FEMA, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their lack of organization is ok. It seems unlikely that FEMA doesn’t have contingency plans for a situation similar, considering that Hawaii is an island state itself. If there was a disaster there FEMA would be in a similar situation. Shouldn’t FEMA have backup plans to address this? FEMA and aid groups also defend their inaction by stating that road blockages and infrastructure problems have kept them from delivering supplied to the areas that need it most. While this is certainly true, critics who have worked in disaster response teams deployed in the Philippines after the Typhoon and Haiti after the earthquake say that it is not an excuse. In these other disasters US military planes were used to airlift aid into unreachable areas. Comparing the military response rates and numbers to these disasters, and even to responses to Harvey and Irma show a markedly smaller and slower effort.
Although it can’t in be said that the Trump, the US Government, and FEMA are doing nothing for Puerto Rico, it can be said that the response it not what should be expected for a disaster of its size. The size and speed of the response seem to say that citizens of Puerto Rico (who are US Citizens) are considered second class citizens to those of US states such as Florida and Texas who received more expedient and efficient aid.