News reports of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria apparently need to be accompanied by a reminder that Puerto Rico is a United States territory, and that all of its inhabitants are American citizens.
We’re not talking about Mexico, where Americans would be justified in thinking that the Mexican government bears the primary responsibility for recovery from the earthquake which flattened buildings in Mexico City. Puerto Ricans have been as American in their citizenship as Wisconsinites since 1898.
But the response of the federal government hasn’t been nearly as rapid as it was when Hurricane Harvey devastated south Texas, or when Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida. Health care legislation and picking fights with protesting NFL players seemed to be more urgent matters for Congress and for President Donald Trump’s administration in recent days.
Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico a humanitarian crisis of a far greater scale than that seen in New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina is unfolding.
“Despite the Trump administration’s insistence that it is on top of the crisis, some 3.4 million Puerto Ricans — basically the entire population — remain without regular electricity,” Ishaan Tharoor wrote in a commentary piece in Wednesday’s Washington Post. “An estimated 1.5 million are without access to clean drinking water. It is a remarkable, shocking state of affairs for an island inhabited by more American citizens than 21 individual states on the U.S. mainland. Countless residents are cut off by collapsed physical infrastructure and the failure of communications systems on the island.”
Unlike with Harvey and Houston, in Puerto Rico’s situation it’s not possible for a U.S. Coast Guard member living in Wind Lake to act as a dispatcher for the all-volunteer Cajun Navy from his dining room, as Petty Officer 1st Class Blanton generously did. It’s 1,014 miles from Miami to Puerto Rico. This is a job for the U.S. Navy, at least in part; we’re certain those officers and sailors are more than capable of handling this mission.
Last Monday, when the president took to Twitter to address Puerto Rico’s situation, he felt compelled to mention the island’s “broken infrastructure” and “massive debt” with “billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks.” While all of that may be true, the president seemed to imply that Puerto Rico deserved blame for being devastated by a hurricane. If he wasn’t, we don’t recall similar criticism of Houston’s infrastructure after Harvey hit or of Florida’s after Hurricane Irma made landfall.
In 1940, when Britain was fighting Nazi Germany alone and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was urging passage of the Lend-Lease Act to supply Britain with arms, he famously said that were his neighbor’s house to catch fire, “if he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. I don’t say to him before that operation, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.’”
Not only are Puerto Ricans our neighbors, they are our fellow Americans. They are in urgent need of aid from their federal government. Today.