By Horus Alas
I’m sure you’ve seen the images by now. President Trump stands in a church in San Juan, Puerto Rico surrounded by disaster-stricken Puerto Ricans who are somehow smiling and taking pictures of him on their phones.
With the swish of a volleyball player throwing the ball into the air before a serve, Trump stands in the middle of the crowd, his face detached and petulant, and tosses a roll of paper towels into the small mass of people around him.
Never mind that since hurricane Maria ravaged the island over two weeks ago, 90 percent of Puerto Ricans are without electricity or running water. Never mind they lack medical supplies for the injured and firm. Never mind Puerto Ricans are United States citizens who should be entitled to every protection granted by the U.S. Constitution.
In response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which struck Texas and Florida respectively, the federal government quickly dispatched material and personnel aid. As of Sept. 22 for example, over 31,000 National Guard troops had been sent out, and emergency supplies were in place in Texas prior to Hurricane Harvey’s landfall.
Within four days of Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Florida, over 40,000 federal personnel and 6.6 million meals were present in affected disaster areas, CNN reports.
For devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, on the other hand, FEMA claimed a federal personnel presence of somewhere over 10,000.
When San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz complained of a deficient federal response in light of the island’s ongoing water and electricity shortages, President Trump berated her via Twitter, claiming, “Such poor leadership ability from the mayor of San Juan.”
And although President Trump visited Texas and Florida within four days of each respective area’s hurricane landfalls, he waited until Oct. 3—almost a full two weeks after Hurricane Maria reached the island—to visit Puerto Rico.
In his remarks announcing the trip, Trump noted, “I know many Puerto Ricans, and they’re great people and we have to help them.”
Almost as if in preparation for blowback to a substandard federal response, he also added, “The infrastructure was in bad shape as you know in Puerto Rico before the storm, and now in many cases it has no infrastructure…”
While Trump does make a fair point here—to note one key factor, the median age of the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority’s plant is 44 years—shoddy infrastructure only makes the island’s need for disaster relief all the more urgent.
And whereas disasters on the mainland were met with solemnity and quick displays of solidarity, Trump told the crowd of survivors at the church he visited in San Juan Oct. 3, “… if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous—hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here… Seventeen? Sixteen people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands.”
In estimating the forthcoming expense for Puerto Rico’s disaster relief, Trump also noted, “you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack … but that’s fine.”
There’s been a tellingly stark difference in the way President Trump has approached recent disasters within the continental U.S. versus its Caribbean territories, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In the former case, he’s at least affected some facsimile of genuine empathy; in the latter settings, no such attempts have been made.
The Washington Post’s Janell Ross points out that in response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this August, Trump spoke of some attendees as “very fine people.” He also pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, who had been under investigation for racial profiling of Latinos in his state.
The University of Florida’s Nicholas Vargas, an assistant professor of sociology, observes how, “when it comes to Puerto Rico and the humanitarian crisis there, what we see is a hands-off, bitter, hardly restrained resentment that anything is expected of him at all. This is a man who has the capacity to empathize. It—even in a catastrophe—is just a selective thing.”
The President’s response to calamity off the mainland can perhaps best be measured by the photo of him in that San Juan church. As citizens and custodians of this country’s cultural legacy, it would behoove us to remember that moment.
There are well-circulated photos of former president Obama comforting survivors after Hurricane Sandy. Former President George W. Bush did the same after Hurricane Katrina. Years after leaving the Oval Office, Bill Clinton also took time to embrace the bereaved survivors in Sandy’s wake.
The current president didn’t visit areas devastated by Hurricane Maria, where people still lack medical supplies, electricity or running water. He didn’t comfort any of the hundreds of American citizens who have lost their homes or family members in one of the worst natural disasters to strike Puerto Rico.
Instead, he stood in an unscathed church in San Juan, surrounded by smiling civilians who must have had enough electricity to charge their phones. And like a volleyball player about to serve the ball over the net, he tossed them paper towels.
Featured Photo Credit: Featured photo courtesy of Flickr user DonkeyHotey.
Horus Alas is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.