Trump Neglected Puerto Rico, But He Didn't Forget It

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Sept. 20 last year, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, tearing apart the island’s antiquated power grid, destroying homes, shuttering schools and hospitals, upending the water supply and leaving about 3,000 people dead according to the most recent, independent estimates.

President Donald Trump and his administration didn’t convene a meeting in the White House’s Situation Room to discuss the federal government’s disaster relief response until six days after Maria hit. In the interim, Trump had campaigned in Alabama (without saying a word about Puerto Rico’s crisis) and didn’t post any tweets about the hurricane until Sept. 25. Shortly after he began tweeting, he used his platform to launch salvos at the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, and at the media and Puerto Ricans themselves for what was quickly becoming a humanitarian crisis.

This contrasted sharply with the federal response to the two hurricanes that had previously ravaged the Caribbean and battered Texas and Florida. The earlier efforts were aggressive, well-planned relief operations. Tens of thousands of federal personnel were deployed (about 31,000 people for Hurricane Harvey and more than 40,000 for Hurricane Irma), along with ample stocks of food and water. Only about 10,000 federal personnel initially got to Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria, and the military there complained — rightfully so — about inadequate food, water and medical supplies. Because of logistical nightmares, supplies that did reach the island initially piled up on San Juan’s docks.

Puerto Rico presented unusual hurdles to relief efforts, of course. It was mountainous, surrounded by water and rife with government corruption and mismanagement. But the federal government had met those challenges before. In 2010, the administration of President Barack Obama responded to an earthquake in Haiti (also a mountainous island) by deploying 8,000 troops in a couple of days. Two weeks later, 22,000 troops had been dispatched. (The Trump administration only had 7,200 members of the military in Puerto Rico two weeks after Maria touched down.)

When Trump finally visited Puerto Rico 13 days after Maria’s arrival, he made a spectacle of himself by tossing paper towels to a crowd in San Juan and insisting that the death toll on the island was only 16 or 17 people.

Then he left.

But he didn’t forget.

Puerto Rico has remained on the president’s mind for all the wrong reasons. On Thursday he continued two days of tweets about the loss of lives and the recovery effort in Puerto Rico, where electrical power is still a hit-or-miss proposition.

“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” he noted on Twitter. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000.”

And where did that supposedly bogus figure of 3,000 deaths come from, you ask? The president has an answer: “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”

Actually, the estimate of Puerto Rico’s death toll comes from an independent study that researchers at George Washington University conducted at the request of the Puerto Rican government. It was released last month and it’s based on an analysis of excess deaths (those that went beyond the island’s normal death count) between September 2017 and February 2018 — a range that encompasses the president’s visit to Puerto Rico and only a few months after he left.

“This research represented the most rigorous study of excess mortality due to the hurricane done to date,” the GWU researchers said. “We hope this report and its recommendations will help build the island’s resilience and pave the way toward a plan that will protect all sectors of society in times of natural disasters.”

Paving the way for constructive conversations isn’t usually in Trump’s wheelhouse, however. With his government and the eastern seaboard gearing up for the arrival of Hurricane Florence, he’s gone about reminding everyone of what a great job he claimed to have done in Puerto Rico. On Tuesday, he told reporters in the Oval Office that Puerto Rico was an “incredible, unsung success” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.” On Wednesday, he tweeted this:

None of this is true. The president didn’t do a good job in Puerto Rico and it wasn’t an unsung success. The Army Corps of Engineers eventually did admirable work on the island even as the death toll there kept mounting, overcoming daunting odds to try to generate power and restore homes. But as I noted last year when I visited Puerto Rico after the hurricane, Trump is a builder, and handling projects like recovery efforts should be in his blood. He fumbled Puerto Rico, sadly and disastrously, because he didn’t care to focus on it in mature and useful ways.

And let’s put Puerto Rico’s death toll in perspective. Hurricane Camille, one of the most devastating storms to hit the U.S. in the late 20th century, made landfall in Mississippi in 1969 and left about 260 dead. Hurricane Andrew killed about 65 people in Florida in 1992. Hurricane Irma left about 130 dead in the Caribbean and Florida last year; Hurricane Harvey, a Texas companion of sorts to Irma, killed about 110. Hurricane Katrina, which Trump cited as benchmark of catastrophe, left about 1,800 dead after it made landfall in Louisiana in 2005. Nearly 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 — on a par with Hurricane Maria.

The most powerful man in the world has spent part of the last few days lying about the circumstances in which thousands of people died before and after his single visit to Puerto Rico, rather than acknowledging what went wrong and leading a constructive conversation about effective disaster response — a conversation that could usefully inform the response to Hurricane Florence.

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.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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