Sadly, it’s not surprising that President Donald Trump made Tuesday’s trip to the devastated U.S. territory of Puerto Rico all about himself.
As reports emerged that some Puerto Rico residents were forced to eat dog food in a medical clinic, while others were rationing water, Trump sat in an airplane hangar, heaped praise on himself and his team, and sought affirmation from federal and local leaders.
As people in towns across the island of almost 3.5 million American citizens sat in the dark without electronic communication, fuel, cash, safe drinking water or medical treatment, Trump talked of how “very proud” Puerto Rico should be that its death toll was just 16, compared with “thousands” (actually, 1,833) from the “real catastrophe” of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005. Sadly, later in the day, Puerto Rico’s governor had to update the number of dead so far to 34.
As those in the mountains remained without help, trapped by landslides and destroyed roads, Trump spoke not of the humanitarian crisis at hand, but of the “fantastic job” those around him have done.
And as tens of thousands of Puerto Rico families are left homeless, he added, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
The picture painted by Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico, where he toured some of the island’s least damaged neighborhoods and tossed paper towels into a crowd, is far different from the reality elsewhere on the island. In rural areas, stores haven’t reopened, residents don’t have cash to buy scarce goods and tens of thousands are out of work.
While the administration got a slow start, federal officials have since ramped up relief work, and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan’s leadership should help. Ultimately, Trump won’t be judged on the hours he spent in Puerto Rico, but on the federal effort that is likely to last years. In the short term, the relief work must concentrate on getting supplies faster to rural areas. In the long term, it must focus on rebuilding to stabilize and strengthen Puerto Rico’s crippled, debt-ridden economy, modernize its infrastructure, and encourage young people to stay and tourists to return.
When that is accomplished, Trump will deserve the praise he seeks. But if in the coming weeks and months the people of Puerto Rico are eating dog food, begging for clean water and scrounging for medication, this very real catastrophe will become far worse.
The death toll will likely rise, and Trump will bear the blame.