clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Everything Trump didn’t say about Puerto Rico during his State of the Union address

Puerto Rico is worse off than any other part of the United States. Trump’s State of the Union speech ignored that.

Melanie Oliveras González, 6, stand on the porch of her house, in front of a handful of electric cables knocked down by the winds of Hurricane Maria, in Morovis, Puerto Rico, on December 22, 2017. Morovis has been without power since the hurricane smashed into the island in September.
Carlos Giusti/AP

President Trump spent 90 minutes Tuesday evening talking about how the United States is faring one year into his administration during his first State of the Union address.

Yet he glossed over one of the most significant events of his administration so far: the destruction of Puerto Rico.

Trump highlighted the heroic efforts of volunteers and federal responders in Houston after Harvey hit. He only mentioned Puerto Rico once: "To everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else — we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together," he said.

President Donald Trump during the State of the Union on January 30, 2018.
AFP/Getty Images

The president didn't signal how dire the situation is that more than 3 million US citizens are living through in Puerto Rico. The island — a US territory since 1898 — is worse off than any other place in the United States.

Going to school, having clean drinking water, and even getting regular trash service remains a daily challenge four months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island.

Puerto Rico is also experiencing the longest blackout in US history. About 30 percent of the island’s electricity users still don’t have power, and the government doesn’t expect to restore it fully until May. The lack of basic services has fueled a mass exodus from the island, which demographers expect will only worsen. More than 250,000 people have left Puerto Rico for the US mainland — possibly for good.

Rosa Maria Torres, 96, remains bedridden at her home in Morovis, Puerto Rico, on December 21, 2017. Nearly 1,000 homes across Morovis lost their roofs, and 90 percent of residents, officials say, have not received federal assistance, adding they expect it will be several more months before power returns.
Carlos Giusti/AP

To top it all off, the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to stop distributing food and water supplies by the end of January.

It's true that Puerto Rico was already in bad shape when the hurricane hit in September. But the federal government's slow response to the disaster didn't help. In fact, the reaction from the White House was one of the ugliest moments of Trump's administration so far.

It's not surprising that Trump didn't want to revisit that.

Trump blamed Puerto Ricans for their suffering

It only took a few days for Trump to get on a plane to visit Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit in August. That wasn't the case when Hurricane Maria landed in Puerto Rico a few weeks later. Trump waited two weeks before visiting, and when he got there, he was a real jerk.

The president emphasized that only 16 people had died from the storm (a number that is wildly inaccurate) and suggested that Maria wasn’t “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina. He didn't offer condolences. Instead, he reminded Puerto Rico about how much money it was costing the federal government to respond to the crisis.

“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you are throwing our budget out of whack,” he told local leaders who met with him. “We’ve spent a lot of money in Puerto Rico.”

Trump then walked around throwing rolls of paper towels to hurricane survivors in the city of Guaynabo, and spent weeks insulting the mayor of San Juan on Twitter after she accused the federal government of abandoning Puerto Rico.

Helping Puerto Rico recover is a gargantuan task — FEMA has called it the “largest federal response to a disaster” in American history. But this response has also been unusually painful to watch, with shady contracting deals, a drinking water crisis, and the army of federal responders stretched too thin to effectively get help to everyone.

Congress was slow to respond too. Many lawmakers visited the island, but congressional leaders have done little to help the island beyond voting to add more money to FEMA’s disaster relief fund.

No one even knows how many people have died as a result of the hurricane. The governor recently ordered a recount.

The island is more broke than ever

To be clear: Puerto Rico was already in horrible shape before the storm hit. The local government was bankrupt from years of irresponsible borrowing and Congress’s decision to let certain tax incentives expire for US companies doing business there.

Puerto Rico's government, led by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, filed for bankruptcy-like protection in 2017 after defaulting on payments to Wall Street creditors (Puerto Rico owes $74 billion in bond debt).

An independent bankruptcy-like court called PROMESA has been helping Puerto Rico restructure its debt, and board members asked Rosselló to come up with a new, post-hurricane fiscal plan.

The plan he submitted last week is a sign of more desperate times to come. It says Puerto Rico will not be able to make any payments to creditors for at least five years, as local tax revenues are expected to fall by 18 percent in 2018. The economy is also expected to contract by 11 percent during that time, nearly three times more than economists projected before the storm hit.

The plan also proposes harsher austerity measures. Rosselló plans to shrink the government to about a third of its size and close about a quarter of its public schools, among other moves.

Even after that, and even calculating the $35 billion in FEMA recovery grants approved for Puerto Rico, the island’s finances will still be in the red this year.

It doesn't help that major US retailers are closing up shop there. Sam's Club announced that it is shuttering its three stores on the island.

The impact of the hurricane will linger for years.

Trump failed Puerto Rico

President Trump is ultimately responsible for Puerto Rico's recovery.

Under the Stafford Act, the president takes the lead role in disaster response and recovery in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. He could have ordered FEMA and other federal agencies to send more people or direct more resources to the island.

Trump could have publicly pressured the governor to be more forthcoming about the death count. The local government surely shares the blame for the slow response, but the president is, in the end, accountable for the lives of the 3.4 million US citizens on the island.

His casual treatment of their struggle may come back to haunt Republicans. Puerto Ricans who live on the island may not have a voting member in Congress, but once they move to the United States, they do.

Doris Martínez receives supplies and water from town workers outside city hall in Morovis, Puerto Rico, on December 21, 2017. More than 30,000 residents of the mountain town wait for power to be restored, one of the last areas of Puerto Rico that remains completely in the dark more than three months after the passage of Hurricane Maria.
Carlos Giusti/AP

With hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing the island, they may voice their frustrations in the voting booth in the coming midterm elections. Multiple media outlets have predicted that the surge of new voters from Puerto Rico could create a decisive voting bloc in swing states like Florida.

So far, the evidence is scarce.

Between September 20 (when Maria hit) and December 31, only about 9,000 Hispanic residents registered to vote in Central Florida, which is home to the state's largest Puerto Rican community, according to an analysis by the Orlando Sentinel.

That's far less than the 20,000 new voters political strategists believe it would take for Puerto Ricans to create a powerful voting bloc in the state. They have 10 months to change that.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.