By EDITORIAL BOARD
One year ago, Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico, leaving the island without power and forcing residents to scramble to find fresh water and other basic supplies. It was one of the worst natural disasters the United States has ever endured.
But the true tragedy has been the pathetic response from the federal government. While most of the blame lies squarely at the feet of the Trump administration, Republican leadership in Congress is also at fault — as are Democrats, who have failed to mount a coherent opposition to the federal government’s failings, a basic tenet of a party out of power.
As Americans, we need to do better.
In the weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, the response was a chaotic mess. Food, water, clothing and other basic supplies were slow to make it to the island. When they arrived, there was no plan for how to distribute these necessities to people in remote parts of the island. With power out pretty much everywhere, the people were left to fend for themselves. In this dystopian reality, we saw some of the best of humanity: neighbors helping each other find temporary shelter; people walking miles to gather some basic supplies to help the infirm.
We also saw a great swelling of humanitarian relief sprout up in New York City, as residents concerned about their fellow Americans donated whatever supplies they could, filling the few planes that could make it down to the island. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and members of the state legislature made us proud as New Yorkers with their compassion. So did organized labor, who found ways to get skilled volunteers to the island to help provide medical care; or help with the rebuilding of the power grid, clearing of streets and providing other necessities.
Unfortunately, this organic outpouring of compassion was not harnessed and bolstered by federal officials. Comments from the White House suggested that the despair on the island was overblown and that the people would be OK. Congress also fell flat in its efforts, failing to do simple things like temporarily remove the Jones Act — an archaic 1920 law that limits the shipping of goods to the island. For weeks, members of Congress twiddled their thumbs on this as people died.
After the initial horror subsided, the federal response continued to be insufficient. Devoid of hope, residents of Puerto Rico committed suicide at increased rates. Those who had the means to flee the island did so, relocating mostly to Florida and New York.
After mountains of evidence about the disastrous response — and about the lies by government officials about the overall impact — Puerto Rican officials finally commissioned George Washington University to do a comprehensive study of the death toll. The result was a dreadful 2,975 deaths. The number was derived by examining the rise in deaths on the island as compared to previous years.
As terrifying as the number is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. These weren’t peaceful passings. These were people killing themselves because their entire world had been shattered. These were elderly individuals in extreme pain, passing because they couldn’t get the medical care they needed. In some remote places, people starved to death.
This all happened in the United States. Being a citizen of the most powerful nation in the world didn’t protect these people. They were essentially forgotten and left for dead by their government.
When a tragedy like this occurs, the response cannot be ignorance. It cannot be traditional partisan fighting. Yet that is what we are seeing.
Congressional Democrats are sending a letter to President Trump denouncing his recent obscene comments about the response to Puerto Rico. In New York City, people are gathering at a church near Trump Tower for an “interfaith memorial service to remember those lost and to recommit to action,” per a press release. After the service they will march to Trump Tower to “demand accountability for the federal government’s failures.”
These actions, while righteous and important, will do little to change things. Democrats should be dishing out their criticism with a clear, coherent message about what should be done in Puerto Rico. They should be advocating for specific things that will help the island recover, or help the people who have fled find comfort on the mainland. Finally, they should be advocating for reforms to the federal government’s emergency-response protocols to make sure all American citizens know that the government will have their back if there is a storm, or an earthquake, or a terrorist attack.
At its most basic level, the federal government should protect the lives of its citizens. If our elected officials cannot do this, then they need to be replaced by people who can.