On Thursday morning, President Trump tweeted out the latest in what’s been a continued string of excuses about the escalating humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in the island, more than 80% of Puerto Ricans are still without power and more than 75% of cell sites are still without service. The storm’s death toll is rising, and will likely continue to do so.
But instead of pledging the federal government’s continued support—as he did after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida—President Trump is threatening to pull federal assistance and leave more than 3 million American citizens on their own. Given the situation in Puerto Rico, the President’s threats are inexplicably cruel, and they contradict key members of his administration and White House staff that have pledged to continue support.
More important, however, is the complete lack of historical precedent for the threat. If the Trump administration abandons Puerto Rico, it will be a sad first in the history of federal disaster response.
Let’s start with a basic fact: because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, the President is threatening to abandon U.S. citizens. Yes, they’re citizens that predominantly speak Spanish, but that may well be the point. The truth is, there’s no real precedent for what President Trump is threatening to do because the question of withdrawing federal support in the midst of disaster relief efforts has never been brought up by a president before. The question has always been, “What do presidential powers allow us to do to help?” not, “Is it worth our time or money to help?”
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a federal military presence in New Orleans for more than a year. Former Department of Homeland Security officials expect federal agencies to continue their efforts in Texas and Florida months, if not years. But for some reason, Puerto Rico is on a timeline.
Though these are examples of disaster response on the mainland, the story isn’t any different in U.S. territories. Yes, federal action in U.S. territories has typically been slower than for disasters on the mainland, but the responses have always come. President George H. W. Bush signed a $1.1 billion relief package after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. After Hurricane Georges made landfill in Puerto Rico as a category 3 storm in 1998, the federal government funded a 5-year, $1.2 billion rebuilding plan and the military participated in relief efforts without controversy.
One question for you, Mr. President. After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, you pledged the federal government’s unequivocal support, tweeting (what else?), “We are with you today, we are with you tomorrow, and we will be with you every single day after, to restore, recover, and rebuild! We love you!” Where’s that sentiment now? More than three million Americans are waiting for your leadership. Abandoning Puerto Ricans would be an abdication of your presidential duty to protect U.S. citizens—no matter what language they speak.