Puerto Rico is now dealing with the aftermath of a powerful 5.8 earthquake and equally powerful aftershocks. Casualties are low, and electrical power is slowly returning. But the quakes are just the latest natural disasters to cripple the U.S. commonwealth.
Puerto Rico still is healing from the hit it took 2 years ago from Hurricane Maria.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced has declared a state of emergency. President Trump has done the same. That’s the very least the Trump administration should do. It would be unconscionable for it to repeat its appalling response to Hurricane Maria’s destruction in 2017, when Trump practically mocked islanders’ pain and suffering, and recovery efforts became a political football between island leadership and Trump.
Vázquez said that she expects more quakes, and called up the National Guard.
Republican Florida lawmakers Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott are facilitators for Puerto Rican aid. In a letter to the administration, Rubio, Scott and Puerto Rican officials urged the president to declare a state of emergency, which guarantees that federal resources are quickly disbursed.
“We have distribution centers around the island and four warehouses stocked with items such as water, ready-to-eat meals, generators and other supplies,” FEMA Press Secretary Lizzie Litzow said.
Declaring a state of emergency is a no-brainer. This is also an election year, to be cynical, and Florida, whose population of Puerto Ricans soared after Hurricane Maria, is in play, as Rubio and Scott likely reminded Trump. But more than a year and a half after Maria hit, the president was still talking trash about Puerto Rican leaders, saying in 2019 that they “only take from the USA,” while a spokesperson referred to it as “that country.”
No, Puerto Ricans are Americans. They vote in U.S. elections.
The administration, which has yet to be held accountable for its ham-handed response to the Hurricane destruction, should also expedite the overdue release of unused funding for hurricane recovery.
In December, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it was withholding an additional $8 billion in unmet-needs disaster relief from Puerto Rico.
But in total, HUD is delaying the release of two tranches of aid, roughly $18 billion that Congress appropriated for the U.S. territory.
The money is a combination of mitigation and the unmet-needs funds designed to upgrade infrastructure, hardening electrical grids, for instance, and rebuilding homes, businesses and bridges to better withstand natural disasters.
But HUD fears the funds could fall victim to corruption. That’s a legitimate concern no matter what country needs our aid. The Trump administration was not alone in its bungled response to Maria – his throwing rolls of paper towels at people during a press conference was only the most absurd manifestation. Puerto Rico’s leaders come in for blame, too, unable to get an accurate casualty count, for example, for months after the storm.
However, that fear should not stop progress in its tracks. Rather it should propel both administrations to establish rigorous checks and balances to ensure money does not go into grifters’ pockets.