Despite Trump’s ‘Great’ Cleanup, Puerto Rico Is Still Reeling

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A year ago, shortly after Hurricane Maria tore its way across Puerto Rico and upended Ana Rodriguez’s small mountain town, all she wanted was reliable electricity and safe drinking water in her home. She still doesn’t have either.

Her water is bottled and her electricity — which flutters off and on and can’t even power her vacuum cleaner — is something her neighbors in Cidra jerry-rigged after getting tutorials from YouTube videos. (They also snatched abandoned transformers from other towns for their setup.) Rodriguez isn’t expecting the Puerto Rican government or the Federal Emergency Management Agency to come to the rescue.

“People here feel so bad about the government and FEMA,” says the self-employed mother of two. “You can’t say which one is better or worse — they are equally bad.”

Rodriguez is also perplexed by President Donald Trump’s recent fixation on the death toll in Puerto Rico from the hurricane. Whether it was about 3,000 people (a figure based on an independent university study that Trump disputes) or 300 or 30,000, she doesn’t think the exact figure is as important as recognizing that a large number of people died unnecessarily due to a bungled relief effort —and that survivors continue to struggle.

Despite Trump’s ‘Great’ Cleanup, Puerto Rico Is Still Reeling

“I know three people who committed suicide because they lost hope after Hurricane Maria, and they don’t show up in Trump’s body count,” she says. “Puerto Ricans need to stand up by themselves to get past Hurricane Maria. We know that. But we don’t need the president of the United States insulting us while we try to do that.”

Hurricane Maria packed 155 mile-per-hour gusts when it made landfall here a year ago today, well above the wind speed of about 90 miles per hour Hurricane Florence registered when it slammed into the North Carolina coast last week. Maria inflicted an estimated $95 billion in damages — in the form of destroyed homes, flooded towns and cities, a ravaged power grid, a splintered infrastructure, and shuttered schools and hospitals. About $22 billion in estimated damages and at least 32 deaths are being attributed to Florence.

Maria remains very much on the president’s mind. He took to Twitter last week to note that he did “an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico.” This echoed his tweet 18 days after Maria landed in Puerto Rico last year, when most of the island was still blacked out and scores of people were dying because of inadequate emergency care: “Nobody could have done what I’ve done for #Puerto Rico with so little appreciation. So much work!”

The reality is that the initial response to the disaster was muted and stumbling.

Trump and his White House team were slow to focus on the scale of the devastation and committed fewer resources and personnel than they did to contemporaneous hurricane relief efforts in Texas and Florida. The president went on a four-day golf and work outing to his New Jersey club after Maria hit and he made no substantive statements about the crisis until six days after the storm landed. Once he joined the conversation he regularly attacked his critics and local officials rather than only offering words of encouragement on social media. Like many Americans, he didn’t appear to know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and his first and only visit to the island came about two weeks after the hurricane hit. That brief tour was punctuated with a photo op that involved Trump lofting rolls of paper towels into a crowd, a gesture that has become an enduring symbol here of his cavalier approach to the misery he encountered.

As about half of the island continued to struggle without electricity earlier this year and the local death toll mounted, Trump barely noted Puerto Rico’s struggles in his State of the Union speech in January. Shortly before that speech, FEMA said it that it planned to stop delivering fresh water and food supplies to Puerto Rico because they were “no longer needed.” FEMA reinstated the deliveries after legislators and officials in the U.S. and Puerto Rico criticized the move; the agency apologized, saying the cut-off was the result of a communications mistake.

Despite Trump’s ‘Great’ Cleanup, Puerto Rico Is Still Reeling

FEMA initially worked in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers and an array of private companies — with the Army Corps overseeing much of the logistical and rehabilitation work. I traveled with the corps to a pair of projects here last year and interviewed a few of its officials. They were hard-working, dedicated people focused on surmounting difficult terrain and a complex supply chain to carry out their assignment (which largely involved repairing the island’s power grid). They also noted that they weren’t designed to be a long-term response team and that the epic challenges Maria presented was why they ended up embedded here.

The Army Corps withdrew from Puerto Rico in May and handed its responsibilities to FEMA. The agency said its officials were unavailable for interviews for this column, but has noted in a media release that it poured bounteous amounts of aid into Puerto Rico. That tally includes what it describes as “obligated” funds of $3.2 billion to the Puerto Rican government and local municipalities for repairing the power grid and other needs, and $1.4 billion in funding to families for home rebuilding and repair.

Amid that outflow some embarrassing and haphazard things have occurred. FEMA awarded a Florida startup without a track record a multimillion-dollar contract to provide 500,000 tarps designated for temporary roofs on homes. The tarps were never delivered and the contract was cancelled. An Atlanta entrepreneur lacking expertise in major disaster relief programs got a FEMA contract to provide 30 million meals to Puerto Ricans. Only 50,000 meals had been delivered by the time FEMA cancelled that contract. More recently, a large supply of bottled water that FEMA intended to distribute was found abandoned on an airport runway.

“If the government and FEMA are letting water waste at an airport, that is a red flag,” says Rodriguez. “If they can’t distribute water, what about the bigger things?”

FEMA published a report in July taking itself to task for poor disaster planning and an initially slipshod response to Maria. It said it was understaffed on Puerto Rico and those who were here lacked the qualifications needed to respond effectively. The report also says that FEMA was slow to secure supplies sent to the island and that it lost track of where aid was delivered. The agency brought the wrong satellite phones to Puerto Rico and initially was unaware of which hospitals were or weren’t functioning, the report says. A Government Accountability Office study released earlier this month found similar problems with FEMA’s efforts here, while noting that they amounted to “the largest and longest single response in the agency's history.”

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the U.S. Congress launched a lengthy investigation of FEMA and the Bush Administration’s much-criticized response. A similar inquiry doesn’t appear to be afoot regarding FEMA’s efforts in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Brock Long, FEMA’s administrator, is being investigated for misuse of government vehicles and is possibly in danger of losing his job, according to the Wall Street Journal.

There’s no question that affluent parts of San Juan appear to be in better condition than they were last year. Most street lights function, businesses have reopened and fewer buildings are boarded up or strung with scaffolding. Traffic lights remain dark in broad swaths of the city, though. In poorer San Juan neighborhoods and in smaller towns elsewhere, it’s easy to spot rows of homes still using the same temporary blue tarps for roofs that they were using a year ago. While many once-impassable roads are now open, some major roadways are still in disrepair. Over 260 K-12 public schools, about a quarter of the island’s total, have closed. More than 135,000 Puerto Ricans may have permanently relocated to the U.S.

In mid-August, PREPA, Puerto Rico’s maligned power authority, said it had finally reconnected all of the island’s residents to its power grid, 11 months after Maria hit. But the grid itself remains rickety, vulnerable and subject to periodic blackouts.

Despite Trump’s ‘Great’ Cleanup, Puerto Rico Is Still Reeling

Puerto Rico’s lavishly educated young governor, Ricardo Rossello, presides over a government saddled with a $74 billion debt load that forced it to declare bankruptcy several months before Maria struck. (Rossello was unavailable for interviews for this column.) However as honest and well-meaning Rossello may be, he is also mired in a government that has long been considered riddled with cronyism and corruption.

While Rossello has made recent progress restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt, he may have missed an opportunity to use the crisis spawned by Maria to shake up the island’s bureaucracies as well as troubled agencies like PREPA. Rossello’s government is also prone to FEMA-like nightmares. Cargo containers full of spoiled food, water and baby supplies meant for disaster relief were recently discovered undelivered in a government parking lot. And as my Bloomberg News colleagues Yalixa Rivera and Jonathan Levin reported in July, decomposing bodies have occasionally piled up in backlogs at the island’s morgues.

Incidents such as those have left residents like Rodriguez shaking their heads. When I visited her last year she said her husband had to drain his retirement savings in order to build a retaining wall to shore up her battered property, where she’s lived for 27 years. She later attempted to apply for assistance from FEMA for other improvements to her home but couldn’t afford to take on the loans the agency offered. She said the Puerto Rican government is invisible in her town and she wonders where all of the FEMA funding is being spent.

“People need direct help here through local communities rather than through the government because we don’t know what happens to the money once the government gets it,” she says. “Puerto Rico should be better than this.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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