Take an isolated island populated with Americans who have dark skin. Hit the island with a hurricane of apocalyptic force. Step back. Watch the near annihilation of everything people rely on to stay alive.
Now add one demonstrably bigoted, ignorant, and self-serving president. Throw in some people of Republican persuasion. See all signs of compassion disappear. Observe as the party faithful blame the island’s devastation on the people who live there. Listen to their support for letting the islanders suffer. Smell the impending stench of death and decay.
Welcome to America. Or what’s left of it. It’s dying a little more every day.
I used to think the worst consequence of a government takeover by Donald Trump and Republicans would be the loss of our democracy to a greedy, fascist autocracy. Strictly speaking, I still think that’s our greatest peril.
But the crisis caused by Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico has catapulted another concern to the front of my mind—the threat of a national “heart” attack.
Now, I’ve been around for some serious American atrocities—the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the Kent State shootings in Ohio, the Abu Ghraib tortures in Iraq come to mind first. Each one left a black stain on this country and revealed just how crazed we can be when fear, anger, or ignorance are in charge.
It may seem absurd to even hint that the laggard and paltry response of Trump and his Administration to Puerto Rico has the potential to be another atrocity. But as the death toll rises there, the incident will surely become one.
Maria hit Puerto Rico on Wednesday, September 20. The next day, Trump approved a disaster declaration, and on Saturday, some federal aid began moving into the island. But not until Monday, five full days after Maria’s strike, did Trump publicly address the catastrophe. He’d been busy ranting about African American sports players kneeling in protest during the national anthem.
Using the presidential dais of Twitter, and devoid of empathy, Trump essentially blamed the American islanders for their plight. The territory, he wrote, “was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt.” Its electrical grid was already “in terrible shape,” and Puerto Rico owed billions of dollars to Wall Street and the banks, “which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
That’s it. No more. Not a word of encouragement nor a sending of prayers. Not even the usual statement of support. Just an indictment of Puerto Rico. As if its 3.4 million Americans deserved to have Maria’s wrath descend upon them.
On top of that negligence, Trump and his administration refused to waive the Jones Act, which bans other countries from shipping fuel and supplies to U.S. ports. The act was readily waived before hurricane Harvey hit Texas and when Irma struck Florida. But it took eight days—and profuse public criticism—for Trump to waive it for Puerto Rico.
Trump excused his hesitance to waive the act, saying, “A lot of people who work in the shipping industry don’t want the Jones Act lifted.” Yes, of course, all 3.4 million of them.
While the 10-day waiver is a plus, transporting supplies to Puerto Rico is not the biggest problem. Neither is the amount of supplies in port. Some 3,000 shipping containers are sitting unopened at San Juan’s main port because of bureaucracy. City Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz doesn’t have the jurisdiction to open them. Even if she did, a web of obstacles stands in the way of getting the supplies to the people.
CNN describes the “gridlock of problems” facing Puerto Rico.
What’s most critically needed is hands-on support and logistical coordination. Puerto Rico needs people who can set up tent housing, distribute food and water and other supplies, provide access to ATMs, work on repairing the electrical grid, maintain generators for hospitals, provide temporary medical facilities and staff, build cellphone towers, remove debris from roads, create makeshift bridges, fly helicopters, and more.
Only military support troops are equipped to handle all those needs. As of Friday, about 4,500 active-duty military forces were on the ground, along with a few thousand local Coast Guard and National Guard members. But according to Phillip Carter, a military specialist at the Center for a New American Security, those numbers are drastically low. “Given the size of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the scale of devastation, it may take a task force of 50,000 service members.”
The real power to fix things lies in the Oval Office. Only Trump can call up the military capacity needed, and it will likely require redirecting troops, particularly those planned for Afghanistan. Such a call-up would also require funding. But the White House has signaled it would not even request such funding until sometime in October.
Trump has insisted that the government has had “tremendous reviews” for its response. “Everybody has said it’s amazing the job we’ve done in Puerto Rico. We’re very proud of it, and I’m going there on Tuesday.”
It’s unlikely Trump will receive a warm welcome. Friday afternoon, Mayor Cruz gave an impassioned speech, saying “We are dying here…if we don’t get the food and the water into people’s hands, what we are going to see is something close to a genocide…Mr. Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives.”
Early Saturday morning, Trump addressed the mayor’s entreaty via Twitter. He said Puerto Ricans should not depend entirely on the federal government. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
It’s impossible to imagine the scope of Puerto Rico’s calamity, even for those who’ve survived major U.S. hurricanes in the past. We can’t wrap our minds around this level of destruction, hardship, and suffering. We can’t smell the stench of millions of toilets that have gone unflushed for ten days. We can’t feel the cracked-tongue parch of having little to no water to drink or the fear of not knowing when more water will come.
We can’t grasp what it’s like to go endlessly without cellphones or internet—no way to talk with friends and family, call for help, or just find out what’s happening and what to do next.
Neither can we conceive of having no place to sleep during unlit nights…of waiting 20 hours just to fill one portable container with gas…of living day and night in oppressively humid heat…of listening to babies cry for food and clean diapers until, exhausted, they sleep.
We can’t picture our trees stripped of vegetation and our land left agriculturally barren. We have no clue what we’d do in the face of the diseases that will soon start to spawn and spread. We can’t feel the panic of seeing no relief in sight or of wondering who will be the next to die.
We simply cannot imagine such hardship. Not for a day or a week and certainly not without a light at the end of the tunnel.
So we separate ourselves from the unimaginable pain, fear, and grief. We slip out the side door and go where we can cope. Somewhere far away from the tragedy.
This “psychic numbing” is normal, says Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. For decades he’s been asking the question: Why does the world often ignore mass atrocities, mass suffering?
Slovic has found that, as the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy and willingness to help reliably decrease. “The value of a single human life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.” We can deal better with one death than two.
Making matters worse is “a false sense of inefficacy—the feeling that what you’re doing just won’t matter.” But, says Slovic, “Don’t be misled by the fact that you can’t do it all. Even partial solutions save whole lives.”
Donald Trump’s response to Puerto Rico is damnable. Like the crisis itself, his words and actions are inconceivable. So, too, are the silence of his administration, the lack of urgency in Congress, the failure of his evangelical advisors to pressure him, and the eagerness with which his base supports his inhumanity.
Even the media have been downshifting their coverage of Puerto Rico or skirting around key concerns. Where, for instance, is even one media source leading with a countdown of days till Puerto Rico gets the help it needs? Where were the lead stories explaining that the Jones Act, itself, is a large cause of the island’s economic decline? Why didn’t the media stress that Trump’s own failure to save a golf club contributed $32.6 million to the island’s debt? Will the media ever start shaming Trump for his coldblooded cruelty?
Most people do care about the humanitarian crisis building in Puerto Rico. Many are angry; some, even sickened. But most are also going psychically numb, and that urge must be resisted. Our silence is being heard around the world. At stake is what kind of nation the United States is going to be.
We must step back from this brink of a national heart attack. For people—our people—are about to die.
Money is often the most useful way to help in a crisis, but finding the right recipient requires a bit of research. A New York Times article lists a number of good places to donate. Also in the Times is advice on how to make your choice. Below are Beacon’s recommendations, based on information from Charity Navigator, GuideStar, Wise Giving Alliance, and Charity Watch.
ConPRmetidos: A Puerto Rican organization focused on public-private partnership is aiming to raise $150,000 for relief and recovery.
Global Giving: A charity crowdfunding site that’s attempting to raise $2 million to be used exclusively for local relief and recovery efforts.
Unidos por Puerto Rico: This initiative of Beatriz Rosselló, the first lady of Puerto Rico, enlists private-sector help in providing aid to those affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Donations are accepted through a variety of means, including PayPal.
AmeriCares: This relief and development organization provides health services to those in need and is working with officials in Puerto Rico to stock emergency shelters with medical supplies.
One America Appeal: All five living former presidents have united to raise money for this fund administered by the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation. Donations will be distributed to a variety of funds aimed at helping storm victims in Puerto Rico.