More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, Congress and the Trump administration still don’t seem to realize the magnitude of the disaster or what it will take to restore normal conditions on the stricken U.S. territory.
The response has been slow and the level of relief has been inadequate.
President Trump hardly improved things in a brief visit to the island last week. He told local officials they should be “very proud” that hundreds of people didn’t die after Hurricane Maria as they did in “a real catastrophe like Katrina.”
Wrong, Mr. President. Puerto Rico is experiencing an all-too-real catastrophe, a nightmare for nearly all of the 3.5 million American citizens on the island. Most of them are living in squalid conditions with no immediate prospects for improvement. Relief is being parceled out in small doses because of logistical challenges and the overwhelming needs.
The day after the president’s remarks, the death toll rose from 16 to 34 and was expected to keep going up. But it’s not about the body count. It’s the scale of this awesome disaster and the off-the-mainland location that makes previous relief and recovery efforts seem easy by comparison. Maria inflicted sweeping devastation on Puerto Rico.
Two weeks after the storm made landfall, Gov. Ricardo Rosello said 91 percent of the island was still without power, and he expected that 75 percent would still be out in early November.
Roughly half the island has no access to potable water.
Hospitals are struggling to give service, running short on everything from manpower to medicine.
Nearly all schools remain closed. It remains unclear when they’ll reopen.
Meanwhile, most of the communication system was still down at midweek, and FEMA has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of applications for individual assistance. It’s a humanitarian crisis, a public health crisis, a financial crisis (local government is broke), a housing crisis, and much more.
The priorities of the Trump administration and Congress in dealing with all this could not be clearer.
Mr. Trump and his Cabinet must make it clear that this is an emergency requiring a sustained effort on the part of every relevant agency of government. That includes the Defense Department to provide security, FEMA to lead individual aid efforts, the FAA to ensure air transportation safety, HUD to offer temporary housing and shelter, and so on down the line. All hands on deck.
Congress can start by passing a relief package that helps Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — which were also devastated and need urgent attention — as well as Florida, Texas and other communities affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Following that, Puerto Rico — and the Virgin Islands, too — need a comprehensive damage assessment to determine the extent of the needs, and a timeline for providing help. A second recovery package designed to meet the findings, perhaps more, will be needed. And the European countries responsible for the other battered Caribbean island are stepping up, as they should.
Helping Puerto Rico get through this epic disaster will take time, patience, money and perseverance. It won’t be easy but it will be necessary to ensure that the destruction in Puerto Rico does become the destruction of Puerto Rico.