‘Really good job’: Will Puerto Rico be Trump’s Katrina?

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Hundreds of thousands of people of color suffer unimaginable deprivation in the wake of a devastating hurricane while the president appears both oblivious and tone-deaf.

In the summer of 2005, then-President George W. Bush mounted an oblivious and tone-deaf response after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. He famously told his FEMA director he was doing a “heckuva job,” as evacuees remained stranded and desperate in the Superdome.

A similar situation seems to be replaying before our eyes. President Donald Trump has offered his own oblivious and tone-deaf response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria made landfall last Wednesday, knocking out the power grid for millions and displacing tens of thousands of people. The extent of the devastation is almost unimaginable. The governor of Puerto Rico called Maria “the most devastating storm… in modern history.” The mayor of San Juan said, “The San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there.”

Satellite photos show Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria destroyed most of its power grid. CREDIT: NOAA via AP.

By Sunday, one Puerto Rican mayor said, “Hysteria is starting to spread, “The hospital is about to collapse… We need someone to help us immediately.”

Six days after the storm, most of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens still lack either water, food, electricity, fuel, communications, or a safe place to stay.

Trump doesn’t think there is a problem. “We’re doing a really good job,” he said Tuesday at a press conference. Adding to the tone-deafness, the president managed to tweet or retweet 20 times about sports over the weekend — while ignoring the unfolding disaster in Puerto Rico.

Trump was deluged with criticism across the political spectrum. The New Republic noted of Trump’s NFL tweet-storm, “As he comes out forcefully against people who protest mistreatment of non-white people, he’s refusing to speak forcefully about a crisis unfolding on an island of mostly non-white people.”

GOP strategist Steve Schmidt tweeted that “there are millions of our fellow Americans on Puerto Rico facing great danger and suffering. Trump silence and inaction is appalling.”

When the president finally did tweet about Puerto Rico, he implied that Puerto Ricans bear much of the blame for the mess that they are in, thanks to a “broken infrastructure & massive debt.”

Trump tweeted that “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble.” This sounds a lot like the kind of blame-shifting Trump often engages in, a point he underscores in his next two tweets.

Rather than using the power of his massive social media presence to direct people to website where they can help the millions of US citizens suffering in the Caribbean (a good list is here), the president engaged in what can only be described as a pre-emptive CYA effort to shift blame.

(As someone who focuses a lot on hurricane response — my brother lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, which was a major factor in my launching this blog — I think Trump’s tweets Monday evening were uniquely callous in their blame-the-victim framing.)

What exactly is the point of tweeting out that Puerto Rico’s “old electrical grid … was in terrible shape” — if not to somehow imply that Puerto Rico shares the blame for the mess it’s in post-Maria?

The president did not see fit to use his Twitter account to explain how Houston’s rampant unregulated sprawl into flood zones worsened the impact of Harvey. Nor did he point out how Florida made Irma worse through its own lack of planning and state-level denial of warming-driven sea level rise.

It’s only Puerto Ricans who get a series of tweets explaining how they have supposedly contributed to the current humanitarian crisis by having an old electrical grid and billions in debt, “which, sadly, must be dealt with.” Trump is well known for his empathy deficit, but you’d think that someone who himself weathered massive debts to Wall Street and banks — using multiple bankruptcies and tax write-offs — might be less quick to judge others with massive debt.

Finally, Trump’s last line in the third tweet (“Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well”) rival Bush’s famously oblivious praise for then-FEMA director Michael Brown (“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”) ten days before Brown resigned in disgrace due to the mishandling of the Katrina response.

Tuesday morning, Trump doubled down on his self-praise, “We’re doing a really good job.” And he added more lame explanations for why the response to Maria wasn’t as good as it was for Harvey and Irma. “This is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean. It’s a very big ocean.”

Donald, you’re doing a heckuva job.

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