WASHINGTON — Left crippled by deadly Hurricane Maria in 2017, many Puerto Ricans felt the federal government had abandoned them. Close to two years later, they think they know why: the current occupant of the White House.
Later this week, the House will vote on a $17.2 billion disaster relief bill that would provide billions for the storm-ravaged island, as opposed to the mere $600 million President Trump wants to send the island to restart a nutrition program that faced a funding lapse last month.
“The post-disaster needs of Puerto Rico are not being met. Period,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) told VICE News.
The partisan gridlock in Washington that’s crippled that nutrition program has left 100,000 Puerto Ricans who enrolled for benefits after the hurricane, while more than a million people have seen their food aid cut by hundreds of dollars each month, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are backing the president’s position that Puerto Rico has already been helped, but Democrats still blame the administration for its inept response that left many powerless, hungry or dead.
That’s why this resistance to funding fellow American citizens has infuriated Democrats.
“It’s obscene,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told VICE News at the Capitol earlier this month. “And the comments that he makes and that people in his administration make, as if it were a foreign country, is just as outrageous as outrageous can be.”
It’s not just Puerto Ricans who are suffering from this partisan stalemate. Californians who lost most everything in raging wildfires, Midwestern farmers devastated by floods, and residents of Florida and Georgia battered by hurricanes are ensnared in the standoff as they wait for Trump and Democrats to work out a deal.
“It’s a simple proposition: The 3.5 million Americans who live in Puerto Rico are exactly that: Americans. They deserve from their country no less than any other citizen whether they be in Florida, Georgia or any other place,” Menendez said. “And so at the end of the day, I’m for disaster assistance for everybody — always have been, always will be — but that means everybody. And that means Puerto Rico as well.”
Republicans bristle at charges that there are racist undercurrents to the president’s position.
“We’ve already sent $40 billion. That comment is ridiculous”
“That’s just garbage – that’s garbage,” Sen. David Purdue (R-Ga.) yelled at VICE News from an elevator in the Capitol earlier this month. “This president, he’s already demonstrated – he’s been more than helpful. We’ve already sent $40 billion. That comment is ridiculous.”
But government officials in Puerto Rico say it will take them $139 billion to recover from the storm, while the federal Office of Management and Budget estimates it could spend as much as $91 billion on the island over the next two decades. President Trump says he wants to cut off Puerto Rico from more federal recovery funds, and many of his allies on Capitol Hill agree.
“He’s really concerned about how Puerto Rico has spent money in the past. They need a lot of oversight,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters at the Capitol earlier this month. “He’s right on a lot of this, and to just send money down there without any restrictions or oversight is a mistake — a big mistake.”
The administration contends the economically beleaguered island needs to get its own finances in order, and that footing more of its own rebuilding bill will contribute to stability.
“If you don’t have skin in the game, then it’s not in anyone’s best interest,” acting FEMA administrator Pete Gaynor told Bloomberg on Friday. “It’s in their interest to do it as quickly as possible.”
Democrats dismiss those notions coming from administration officials, and the president himself appeared to be unclear about the citizen status of Puerto Ricans, tweeting at one point that they “only take from USA.”
“His tweet about Puerto Rico – where I was born – he says, ‘They keep taking money away. They keep asking [for] money from the USA,’ as if they were a foreign country,” Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “They’re not taking from the USA; we’re all the USA.”
The Senate will likely reject the House bill to infuse billions of dollars into Puerto Rico’s recovery effort, but it’s clear that Puerto Ricans are bewildered and hurt by Trump’s position: Many feel it has more to do with the color of their skin than with the territory’s poor economic portfolio.
“Oh, it is hurtful. Shouldn’t he know better? He’s the president of the United States. Shouldn’t he know that they’re part of this country?” Serrano said. “That we are part of this country?”
Cover image: In this Oct. 11, 2018 photo, the basketball court of the Parcelas Suarez community still has no roof a year after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in Loiza, Puerto Rico. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have been forced to drain their savings, close their businesses, or resign themselves to living with structural damage as they fight insurance companies over millions of dollars’ worth of claims that have gone unanswered or unpaid more than a year after Maria. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)