Over the past few days, as President Trump has come under fire for his response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the island of Puerto Rico. Trump’s supporters have taken to Twitter and Facebook to defend the president. Many are claiming that if Texans could help themselves, Puerto Ricans should likewise be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. After Trump’s tweets this morning attacking the mayor of San Juan, the level of acrimony will almost certainly increase.
Trump’s defenders do raise a legitimate question: Why can’t the inhabitants of Puerto Rico help themselves rebuild their island and repair the damage from Hurricane Maria? The answer is that the situation in Puerto Rico is very different from the situation in Texas.
As the president so eloquently pointed out on Friday, Puerto Rico “is an island, surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” As most students of American geography will recall, Texas is not an island, which made it much easier to bring relief workers and supplies into the affected areas. Because Puerto Rico is an island, almost everything, from food to fuel, must be shipped in.
Adding to the difficulty, the island’s ports, airports and roads were also heavily damaged by the storm. The waiver of the Jones Act will allow more shipping capacity to be directed to Puerto Rico, but the ability of ports to offload the cargo is still a limiting factor.
The problems don’t end as relief supplies are offloaded on the island. There are reports that mountains of supplies are sitting in San Juan, but cannot be delivered due to damaged roads and shortages of trucks, diesel fuel and drivers. KTLA Channel Five in Los Angeles reported that one Puerto Rico trucking company has 3,000 crates of supplies, but has only been able to dispatch four percent of them due the shortages of drivers and trucks.
Another difficulty that Puerto Rico faces that Texas did not is the widespread power outage. Maria destroyed 80 percent of the island’s power lines per reports by CNBC. It will take months to restore power to the island.
Meanwhile, the lack of electricity makes almost everything more difficult. Where generators and fuel are not available, even the simplest tasks must be performed by hand. The lack of lights also means that time available to work is shorter. Communication is difficult both because of the lack of electricity and the fact that the storm damaged or destroyed cell phone towers.
In contrast, after Hurricane Harvey, relief supplies could be trucked directly to Texas from other parts of the country. Roads were damaged, but there were alternate routes available in most cases. Damage from the hurricane force winds was localized in Texas, rather than spread across the whole coast. Ports and airports reopened quickly.
Most the damage in Houston and Beaumont came from torrential rains and flooding. As a result, electricity stayed on in these heavily populated urban areas. This made it easier for both residents of the area and relief workers.
Finally, I have to point out that Texans did not recover our own. We received a lot of help from around the country. When a large part of Houston was underwater, the Cajun Navy arrived on the scene with boats to pluck stranded Texans from their homes and ferry them to safety. Once the flood waters receded, the infrastructure in Houston was largely intact, unlike the infrastructure of Puerto Rico.
It isn’t fair to blame President Trump for the difficulties with a relief effort that makes the Berlin airlift look easy by comparison. For months to come, the island’s population of more than three million people will be almost entirely dependent upon outside assistance. It is unreasonable to assume that the entire effort could be established and bring the island back to normal within a few weeks.
It is also unreasonable for President Trump to lash out at the island’s representatives who are understandably under an enormous amount of stress. President Trump should have overcome his instinctive tendency to immediately counterpunch at any hint of a slight and instead offered calm reassurance that the federal government is doing everything it can to save the lives of the storm victims.
So far, there is no evidence that the federal response to Hurricane Maria has been bungled. There is also no evidence that Puerto Ricans are not doing everything within their very limited ability to make their situation better.
Attacking the mayor of San Juan as a poor leader is a bad idea on several levels. First, it undermines her authority. Second, it sets up an adversarial relationship between federal and local governments at a time when cooperation is badly needed to save lives. That conflict will only be picked up and exacerbated by both supporters and opponents of the president. Finally, it makes President Trump look incredibly small and vain.
One characteristic of a leader is the ability to overlook perceived personal slights and focus on the job at hand. It remains to be seen whether President Trump has what it takes to be a unifying leader, but he has not exhibited those qualities today. Maria is not Katrina, but the president’s mishandling of the situation may well turn the relief effort into a leadership scandal.