Editor’s Note: Cristian Arroyo-Santiago is a Puerto Rican freelance journalist and student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He’s been a producer and reporter for CNN and NBC News. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
As Hurricane Dorian loomed over Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump complained on Tuesday about “yet another big storm” heading to the US territory, highlighting all the money Congress had allocated for the island to recover from the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
Trump’s tweet read like a guilt trip, insinuating that Puerto Ricans have control over the storms and that the territory lures in these phenomena to get government money. The President then tweeted on Wednesday that he is “the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico.”
Needless to say, Trump isn’t the best thing that has ever happened to Puerto Rico. A statement like that is an insult to the brave and hardworking Puerto Ricans on the island and the diaspora. It also undermines the challenges people on the island faced for up to a year: no power, no communication, no running water and lack of supplies. Trump’s arrogant comments disrespect the memory of the roughly 3,000 people who died after Hurricane Maria, in part due to a faulty response from both federal and local governments.
Over the last two years, the President has used disaster, pain and, most recently, the island’s political turmoil – that led to a governor’s unprecedented resignation– as political weapons. He wielded them to seek undeserved accolades and harm his political rivals, like San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, whom Trump targeted in a tweet Wednesday morning.
This behavior should come as no surprise. With no regard for the devastation and rebuilding effort that Puerto Rico had faced, Trump tweeted in July that Congress “foolishly” gave Puerto Rico $92 billion “much of which was squandered away.” His tweet was yet another attack on the island’s political leaders and the resiliency of the people – not only after hurricanes Irma and Maria but since 2006 when the island’s economic recession took off.
The truth is that over half of the $92 billion the Trump mentioned is based on estimates for possible Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expenses in coming years. Congress appointed $42.7 billion of relief for Puerto Rico, $20.8 billion of which is obligated to be spent by the federal government. The amount actually spent is $13.8 billion, according to the federal government’s disaster relief website.
A full recovery from Irma and Maria would cost around $139 billion, according to estimates from the Puerto Rican government. This enormous mission entails non-stop collaboration from federal agencies, including FEMA.
The enormity of disaster recovery effort is something that the US should understand. As of 2017, 12 years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the US was still spending disaster relief funds on the recovery effort. Many of the over 7,000 federal workers deployed to the disaster were still there.
However, not even a month after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Trump tweeted the US government couldn’t keep “FEMA, the Military & the First Responders … in P.R. forever!”
Days before that, in his tardy visit to the island, Trump said Hurricane Maria’s aftermath was not “a real catastrophe like Katrina.”
President Trump doesn’t understand – or doesn’t want to understand – that Puerto Rico is a US territory, with a population of about 3.5 million residing on the island and millions more Puerto Ricans living in the States. Providing aid and assistance is not a choice but his duty. His comments are the ultimate insult to the island’s longstanding colonial history.
The President is hoping that people will thank him and his administration for doing what they’re supposed to do in a time of crisis. Yet he is reluctant to live up to his responsibility.
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Donald Trump’s reaction to Hurricane Dorian, which indirectly impacted the east of Puerto Rico and now appears to be heading to Florida shows he didn’t learn anything from the disasters in 2017. These tragedies call for a leader willing to lend a hand to his people without hesitating, without humiliating, without re-victimizing and without blaming the people. This is not – and never will be – the time to seek recognition and assume the protagonist role at the expense of those who are suffering.
One thing is sure, if it were up to Puerto Ricans no hurricane would ever hit the island. But when they do, we should have a president who cares.