A steady drumbeat of criticism accusing the White House of not doing enough to hasten the federal government’s relief effort in Puerto Rico has metastasized into yet another political dogfight, as President Trump and the White House respond to an outpouring of outrage from celebrities, politicians and local officials over the administration’s purported inaction over the response.
The backlash to what we imagine the media will soon tag as “Trump’s Katrina” began earlier this week when Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio urged the president to leverage the full might of the US military to aid the disaster response.
But an emotional plea from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz during a press conference late Friday helped elevate the issue to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, eliciting an avalanche of condemnation from celebrities, Democratic politicians, and basically every group that opposed Trump during the election.
"Hamilton" Writer Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted that Trump would go "straight to hell" for ignoring the Puerto Rican people.
During her remarks, Cruz – who was standing in front of palates full of water, food and supplies – described the situation in Puerto Rico as something akin to “genocide” before blasting the administration for its allegedly sluggish response to the disaster, drawing a harsh response from Trump, which served only to further elevate the controversy.
The media quickly piled on, with the Washington Post publishing yet another “bombshell” report calling out Trump for choosing to spend last weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., which the paper alleged contributed to the inadequate disaster response.
But while the backlash to Trump’s remarks has been swift and loud, assessments of the administration’s handling of the response by military officials (people with disaster-recovery experience) have been notably more measured.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan said Friday morning that the Pentagon has 10,000 people helping with the response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma – an unprecedented number. But even that number isn’t enough, he said. Fortunately, the Defense Department is sending more, according to Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, who was recently appointed to be the DoD’s liaison with FEMA.
“We're certainly bringing in more [troops]," Buchanan said on CNN’s “New Day.”
"For example, on the military side, we're bringing in both Air Force, Navy, and Army medical capabilities in addition to aircraft, more helicopters. ... [But] it's not enough, and we're bringing more in.”
As the Hill points out, the Pentagon initially sent 4,000 troops to help in rescue and restoration efforts to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but it wasn’t until Thursday, eight days after Maria slammed the Caribbean, that US Northern Command (Northcom) sent Buchanan. However, at least one administration official quickly pointed out that the early phases of the relief effort had been coordinated by the Navy, and that Buchanan's appointment coincided with FEMA taking the reins of the recovery effort.
However, Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, defended the lag between when the storm hit and when Buchanan was appointed.
“It didn’t require a three-star general eight days ago,” Bossert said of the government response.
When asked whether it was a mistake to not have Buchanan on the ground in Puerto Rico earlier, Bossert replied, “No, not at all.”
“In fact, that doesn’t affect the way that we stage equipment and the way we area command and field operational command. This is textbook and it’s been done well,” Bossert told reporters Thursday at the daily White House press briefing.
Indeed, while the media and Trump’s political opponents have implied that the administration waited until this week to organize a meaningful response to the disaster, in reality, the Pentagon has been steadily increasing its help to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after both were slammed by the two Category 5 storms. The Pentagon began deploying more resources early this week, opening a second airfield at the former Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, preparing the hospital ship USNS Comfort to deploy from Norfolk and establishing a caravan of cargo jets filled with equipment and supplies.
As we’ve reported many times, Hurricane Maria - following just two weeks behind Hurricane Irma, another devastating storm - caused unprecedented damage to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, destroying roads, devastating power grids, and cutting off communications. With many parts of the island completely cut off from the outside world, it was difficult for the military to assess the true extent of the damage and scale up operations accordingly.
In yet another example of how Trump’s opponents have twisted or ignored facts when spinning a self-serving narrative about the administration’s response, Rubio said Friday on CNN that Trump should put the US military in charge of handling and delivering aid to Puerto Rico – ignoring the fact that, until late this week, the Navy had been supervising the response from the sea.
Poviding a notable counterpoint to Mayor Cruz's criticisms, Puerto Rico Gov. Riccardo Rossello has repeatedly thanked and praised the federal response. In a mid-day tweet, Trump thanked Rossello for his praise.
The Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, is a great guy and leader who is really working hard. Thank you Ricky!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
Trump praised another Puerto Rican politician, Congresswoman Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, claiming that she has been "wonderful to deal with"...
Congresswoman Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon of Puerto Rico has been wonderful to deal with and a great representative of the people. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
...And asked the Puerto Rican people not to pay attention to the "fake news."
My Administration, Governor @RicardoRossello, and many others are working together to help the people of Puerto Rico in every way...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
We must all be united in offering assistance to everyone suffering in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the wake of this terrible disaster.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
In an interview with ABC, an anonymous White House official pointed out the irony in Cruz's remarks: Namely, she's been spending more time speaking to the media than helping out herself.
“She has been invited to FEMA command center several times to see operations and be part of efforts but so far has refused to come, maybe too busy doing TV?"
While criticism has focused on Trump's reluctance to wave the Jones Act and send in the military, the response hasn't foundered for lack of supplies. Already has hundreds of thousands of pounds of food, water and other emergency necessitites stuck in Puerto Rican ports. The problems are related to circumstances on the ground. The country’s devastated roads, and a shortage of truckers to drive the supplies into devastated areas, has arguably been the biggest impediment to the recovery effort.
But perhaps most tellingly of all, former Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix – a veteran of several disaster response efforts who has no connection to the Trump administration – told Bloomberg that he believed criticisms of the administration’s efforts have been unfair.
Hendrix explained that the Pentagon and FEMA weren’t being recognized for their careful preparations for the storms.
TH: So, it seems like everybody has blasted Trump administration's response to the Puerto Rico crisis. Has that criticism been fair?
JH: No, I don’t think so. First of all, there was a fair amount of anticipatory action that is not being recognized. Amphibious ships, including the light amphibious carriers Kearsarge and Wasp and the amphibious landing ship dock Oak Hill were at sea and dispatched to Puerto Rico ahead of the hurricane’s impact.
So far, 16 deaths have been recorded on the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which made landfall a week-and-a-half ago as a category four storm. More than 80% of the island is without power, and about 40% doesn't have access to potable water. Still, roads are being cleared, airports are reopening, and cell service is being restored. Soon, the public's attention will shift to the mainland, as tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who’ve seen their homes destroyed by the storms flee the island to stay with relatives until they’re ready to return to the island.
For what it’s worth, mayors of cities with large Puerto Rican populations like New York and Orlando say they are working with the federal goernment to accomodate the influx of temporary residents. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has said he expects up to 100,000 disaster victims to stay with relatives and friends in NYC alone.
However, the question remains: When their time comes, will they also denounce the federal response to score cheap political points?