It has been a year since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm. In that year, Puerto Ricans suffered the largest electricity blackout in U.S. history — which left the island without power for 11 months. Nearly 3,000 people died and many more were temporarily displaced. Scores of people migrated out of Puerto Rico, which lead to the closure of more than 250 public schools. Last week, in the contiguous United States, Hurricane Florence, a Category 1 storm, made landfall on the Carolina coasts. As a Puerto Rican, I am following Hurricane Florence closely, praying for those affected, but also noting the disparity in preparation and reaction between Florence and Maria. A year later, Hurricane Florence has reaffirmed that the U.S. government failed Puerto Rico in preparation, assistance and recovery.
In preparation for Hurricane Florence, President Donald Trump mobilized government assets, including local law enforcement and first responders, the National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Three thousand National Guard soldiers and airmen were directed to the East Coast, FEMA and its partners promised to support all those who need it and the power companies had 40,000 workers from 17 states on standby for post-hurricane power restoration. Puerto Rico did not experience this incredible outpour of support and preparation before Maria. Instead, the federal government only prepared for one storm, Hurricane Irma, which passed north of Puerto Rico on Sept. 7 and fractured the island’s power grid. Because FEMA was not prepared for another catastrophic storm within the same month, the federal government left Puerto Rico with only a fraction of the aid necessary pre-landfall.
While this tragedy unfolds on the East Coast, President Trump has taken to Twitter to deny Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane death toll, praise his administration’s recovery efforts on the island and establish a conspiracy claiming that the Democrats are responsible for making his efforts look bad. But there is no conspiracy. The report released by FEMA detailing the agency’s failures in Puerto Rico proves that the federal government neglected and abandoned its own citizens in their time of need. During the first 72 hours after the hurricane hit, FEMA admits that it had no idea what was happening across the island and failed to coordinate with local officials to create a plan. After that initial lapse in action, the response was pitiful. FEMA lacked thousands of skilled workers, lost track of aid it delivered, had no functional way of keeping track of who needed aid, sent satellite phones to the island that didn’t work in the Caribbean and did not have enough generators.
As resources continue to be deployed to the East Coast while Hurricane Florence makes its way inland, the U.S. population must remember that this impressive response on behalf of Trump’s administration was built on the suffering of Puerto Rico. Millions of Americans in Puerto Rico lost their homes, their lives, their welfare and their island so that the federal government could learn how to effectively prepare for a natural disaster, a fact that the Trump administration will not face. It is no coincidence that the U.S. government has mobilized so forcefully for Hurricane Florence. They are aware of the ways they failed last year as proven by the FEMA report. Releasing the report was a positive sign that federal officials were willing to publicly recognize that they mishandled the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. However, that progress has been erased by Trump’s latest Twitter outburst denying that 3,000 people died because of the hurricane and the pathetic recovery efforts. By explicitly discrediting and diminishing the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, Trump is perpetuating the cycle of neglect against the island instead of admitting the administration’s failures and working to restore the territory.
I sincerely hope that, once Florence is over, those affected do not suffer the same fate Puerto Ricans did. However, as Hurricane Florence batters the East Coast and Trump continues to belittle the crisis in Puerto Rico, it is crucial that we recognize the incompetence of the federal government’s disgraceful response a year ago. Our recognition of Hurricane Florence is valiant, but should serve as a consistent reminder of those who were so wrongfully left behind and neglected in Puerto Rico. The passage of time should not serve as an allowance to forget our government’s reprehensible abandonment of its own citizens.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 17 print edition.
Email Paola Nagovitch at [email protected]