Amid shocking stories of devastation left by Hurricane Maria on the US territory, growing questions about the lack of assistance by the US authorities are topped off by President Donald Trump throwing rolls of paper at survivors.
US President Donald Trump tossed out rolls of paper towels to a crowd in Puerto Rico during his visit on Tuesday and downplayed the effects of Hurricane Maria, which has killed at least 16 people and destroyed much of the US territory.
“If you look at a real catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina … and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering,” Trump told government officials, referring to the 2005 hurricane that devastated Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana.
His dismissive actions and comments about the calamity that resulted as Hurricane Maria struck on September 20 drew strong reactions from many on social media who criticised the president for showing a serious lack of empathy.
Then you throw paper towels at people. How insulting to Puerto Rico....Shame on you— Debbie Tsamasiros (@debny711) October 4, 2017
Meanwhile, accounts of the destruction in Puerto Rico were shocking.
“Almost every tree has fallen or has no leaves left,” Leslie Lopez told TRT World from Amsterdam, Netherlands, recounting what he’d heard from friends and family in Puerto Rico after the hurricane.
“There are floods everywhere,” Lopez added.
Hurricane Maria was the most powerful storm to hit the United States territory in almost 90 years.
Maria knocked out communications, blocked roads, and left many on the Caribbean island without access to clean water, medicine and other necessities.
Friends and family of people on the island were frantic to get in touch with their loved ones after the hurricane.
Lopez was one of them. He’d been lucky to reach his brother and some friends in the days after Maria struck, and they told him about the desolation. The Puerto Rico they described was shocking, he said.
“There are long cues for food and gasoline and other basic necessities that last for hours, and sometimes, after waiting all that time, they are told that everything is finished and they need to come back the next day,” Lopez said.
Lopez, a musician, is putting together a benefit to help provide aid to Puerto Rico.
After days without humanitarian aid arriving, and only limited recovery efforts, some in Puerto Rico were getting desperate.
“We’re going to be feeling this for a really long time, long after the lights come back on and the streets get cleared. There isn’t a tree that isn’t damaged,” Brian Aaronson told the media website Grist over the phone.
On Tuesday, only six percent of people on the island had electricity, and nearly 90 percent of cell sites were still down, according to Puerto Rican officials.
“How do you rebuild a whole island? I don’t even know what that means,” Aaronson added.
In the days after the storm, thousands of people fled to San Juan’s international airport in an attempt to leave. Some needed medical care — diabetics and people on dialysis were among those in most immediate danger — and couldn’t rely on getting that in Puerto Rico because so many hospitals were damaged and had limited power.
Hundreds stayed in the airport, struggling in the heat with no air conditioning, before flights began picking up about a week after Maria hit. The only other way off the island was on a cruise ship. Royal Caribbean last week used one of its ships to rescue over 2,000 people from Puerto Rico in a unique humanitarian mission, while also dropping off supplies.
Erick Morales, a Florida resident, said he was able to get his 84-year-old mother-in-law out of Puerto Rico the day before Maria hit.
Morales and his wife had spent five hours in front of their computer trying to get her on a flight to Miami before they found a ticket. She had been without power since Hurricane Irma — which caused some damage in Puerto Rico days before Maria — and was already depending on generators.
“My wife was insisting she get out of the island,” Morales said. “We knew this would be bad.”
Even with his mother-in-law safe in Florida, more of Morales’ family members were left behind in Puerto Rico to ride out the hurricane. It took two days to hear back from them.
“On Thursday, I was able to get a text message from my sister-in-law and my sister too. We began getting some info from family and friends,” he said.
Morales talked to his college roommate, who described the ferocity of the storm.
“He said it was just like having a 747 next to the house, running that engine. I’m not surprised the island is completely destroyed,” Morales said.
Four thousand people are working to restore electricity in Puerto Rico, and an additional 1,000 workers from private US companies arrived over the weekend, according to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
A week after the storm, most were still waiting for aid. It took days for the first humanitarian aid shipments to begin arriving and, since arriving in Puerto Rico, there have been delays in distribution.
Some have been critical of the US response to the hurricane, calling it too slow.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz on Friday criticised President Donald Trump’s administration, begged for aid, and provoked angry tweets from Trump.
The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2017
Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), travelled to San Juan in the days following the storm and pledged that the US would help Puerto Rico in its reconstruction.
“We’re not going to be satisfied until the situation is stabilised, and the bottom line is that this is the most logistically challenging event that the United States has ever seen,” Long said on Fox News Sunday. “And we have been moving and pushing as fast as the situation allows.”
“You don’t just bring the commodities in — you have to be able to pump them down the roadway systems that we have been working desperately to get open,” Long added.
As of Friday, there were about 4,500 US troops on the ground in Puerto Rico, with 1,400 more National Guard members on the way. The hospital ship USNS Comfort was headed to Puerto Rico, carrying some 1,000 hospital beds and 12 operating units.
Luis Gutierrez, the Democratic congressman for Illinois, on Tuesday weighed in on the hurricane, its aftermath, and the reconstruction efforts. Gutierrez is from Puerto Rico and has long been an advocate on issues relating to the territory.
“Things are improving day by day and the number of helicopters flying missions of mercy to the interior of the island is increasing, but almost everyone has no power. Almost everyone has no food or is having trouble finding it,” Gutierrez said in a statement provided to TRT World by his office.
“Almost everyone has no water and some are seeking water from unreliable or possibly contaminated sources.”
Yesterday in Chicago, Gutierrez and other Puerto Rican and Chicago city leaders met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Emanuel said Chicago would take steps to welcome Puerto Rican and US Virgin Islander evacuees. The city would also send aid, the mayor added. Other mayors and cities across the US are also making their communities available to the evacuees while the recovery efforts continue in Puerto Rico, Gutierrez said.
Morales says he expects many Puerto Ricans to leave the island and move to the US. Even his brother was going to Texas, at least temporarily.
“He told me, I just can’t see myself living with a power generator for a month, with no internet, no television,” Morales said.
The US approved $15 billion in federal aid for hurricane relief after Harvey hit, and some of that will be used for Puerto Rico, CNN Money reported. Half of that went to FEMA, which it can use to reimburse local governments for meeting emergency needs such as offering food, water, and shelter.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said he would ask the US Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to offer the territory a line of credit.
Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s government struggled to provide the basics for its 3.4 million residents. Many estimate it could be months before electricity is fully restored. Some are turning to online fundraisers to raise money to rebuild their communities.
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Trump was criticised for his tweets to the San Juan mayor, and also for bringing up Puerto Rico’s debt in the aftermath of the hurricane which has killed at least 16 people.
“Much of the island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street, which sadly must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities,” Trump tweeted five days after the hurricane.
On Tuesday, Trump — while visiting the devastated island — told the people: “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
Puerto Rico has debts totalling around $70 billion, which forced the territory to file for the biggest US municipal bankruptcy in May. It’s not clear how the island will pay for its estimated $30 billion reconstruction costs.
The American Civil Liberties Union said that Trump’s response to the emergency in Puerto Rico “confirmed second-class citizenship.”
“Congress needs to take care of its constituents in Puerto Rico and give them a shot at recovery with fair and equitable emergency relief aid,” ACLU Political Communications Manager Gabriela Olivera said in an article on the civil rights group’s website.
“The Trump administration and Congress’ lack of adequate action to provide aid to the island is a modern-day reflection of that second-class status. Because, of course, second-class citizens get second-class aid,” Olivera said.