Puerto Rico, today, is in the worst crisis that America has seen in living memory. Millions of Americans on the island are struggling desperately with no electricity, few public services, and severe shortages of food, potable water, medicine, and shelter. It’s a humanitarian disaster, and it’s being woefully undercovered by a news media more interested in whether athletes stand or kneel at sportsball games.
At the same time, however, the federal government is, to a large extent, doing its job. FEMA and the military have swung into action, rescuing individuals, delivering food and water, reopening the airport, and generally doing their job in a professional manner. This is the one small comfort that Puerto Rico’s islanders can take: as Americans, they automatically receive the kind of aid that the mighty American government can provide. They’re not in the situation of an island like Barbuda, all but wiped out in Hurricane Irma, which has to beg the international community for all the help it can get.
Puerto Rico’s governor, too, is doing his job, pushing for as much help as he can while the hurricane is still fresh in people’s minds. For ultimately the scale of the disaster relief that Puerto Rico receives will be governed by Congress, and its willingness to spend the billions the island needs. The only other really important variable is the island’s Oversight Board, which should and probably will declare that Puerto Rico’s creditors are going to have to be willing to accept no kind of interest or principal payments so long as emergency aid is going to those who need it most.
In distant third place comes aid from states like New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo certainly likes the political boost he gets from sitting next to JLo on stage, in front of a backdrop of bottled water and Froot Loops. The few dozen Port Authority staff that he’s seconding to the island, as well as the charitable contributions he’s encouraging, will certainly help at the margin. But they’re not really going to move the needle: a $10,000 donation is going to make very little dent in the context of a storm which caused $10 billion in damage.
Cuomo knows exactly what he’s doing. New York is home to 1.2 million Puerto Ricans, all of whom are desperate to help in any way they can. So Cuomo has set up places where they can drop off batteries and tampons; has told them that they can volunteer with organizations like the United Way; and has even encouraged them to donate money to organizations including what seems to be the official charity for disaster relief. More importantly, many of those Puerto Rican families in New York and other states will be able to provide a place for their relatives from the island to stay, if they have lost everything back home. Almost everybody in Puerto Rico is related to someone on the mainland; those family ties will come in very handy in the weeks and months ahead.
When a disaster hits, and especially when a disaster hits a place we know and love, there’s an incredibly strong feeling of helplessness, combined with an equally strong feeling of wanting to help. That’s where charitable donations come in: by writing a check, people can feel that they have contributed something to the cause. A good politician, like Cuomo, will do everything he can to validate those impulses, which are noble ones. But on the ground, what really matters is FEMA, and the army, and the navy, and – once the urgent rescue operations are over – the billions of dollars in reconstruction aid which can only come from Congress.
So far, the emergency response to Hurricane has been as good as can be expected, given the enormity of the damage. Maria is not – yet – Trump’s Katrina, because the problem with Katrina was not the storm itself, so much as it was the US government’s racist and incompetent response to the storm. So far, at least, there doesn’t seem to have been any criticism of FEMA’s response in Puerto Rico: the agency is doing a hard job in a professional manner.
To be sure, Donald Trump has evinced very little interest in Puerto Rico, but presidential statements and visits are mostly just public relations anyway, and I doubt much of the island really wants to see his face right now. Trump doesn’t seem to have interfered with the FEMA response at all, and in a way we might be able to consider that benign neglect. If he did touch it, he would surely make it worse.
The more interesting question concerns the billions of dollars that Puerto Rico is going to need from Congress. If Trump continues to ignore the humanitarian catastrophe in the country he leads, will that make it harder for Congress to step up and do the right thing? It’s going to be fascinating to find out. I suspect that Trump could actually be helpful here, if he wanted to be: he could do another one of those deals with Chuck Schumer, and push through a generous aid bill with the support of all Democrats and a good number of Republicans.
Even if Trump remains missing in action, however, there’s no reason Congress can’t come up with exactly the same bill on its own. For all that Trump is amazing at sucking up attention, there is still a functioning government in this country. If Congress manages to give Puerto Rico the resources it needs to rebuild after Maria, and if FEMA continues to do a creditable job in terms of disaster relief, then that will be a win for America’s robust government institutions even as the White House is being run by a chaos monkey.
If on the other hand it turns out that the president really is needed to shepherd such things through Congress, then Puerto Rico is in truly dire straits, will probably never recover from this hurricane, and will be a mortal stain on Trump’s memory in perpetuity.
So let’s hope that Trump is genuinely superfluous here. Because he will not rise to this occasion. And if he doesn’t, there’s no amount of charitable contributions that could ever make up for his absence.