To say the White House has been slow to respond to the massive humanitarian crisis happening in Puerto Rico right now is an understatement.
A week after the Category 4 storm devastated the island, more than half of its residents still have no drinking water or cellphone service, and nearly all private homes and businesses have no power. Meanwhile, President Trump has authorized only the minimal response to help the US territory through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Since then, any extra steps he's taken have come largely in response to massive public pressure — from the press, social media, petitions, and members of Congress.
Initially, the voices of concern came from Puerto Ricans living in the United States, who couldn't communicate with their relatives back home. They shared panicked messages on Facebook seeking updates from family members.
As the days passed, news reports began to describe mass hysteria on the island. Entire communities had run out of food and water. The pressure grew stronger. Americans asked the president to do specific things: A finance administrator in Colorado launched a social media campaign to urge the military to send a naval medical ship to the island. A law student in Florida got nearly 500,000 signatures on a letter asking Trump to waive restrictions on ships delivering goods to Puerto Rico.
Trump eventually gave in to the repeated requests. The ship, the USNS Comfort, is scheduled to arrive next week. Trump temporarily waived the Jones Act, a 97-year-old law that makes it expensive to ship goods from the mainland to Puerto Rico.
These moves show how powerful public opinion can be in persuading political leaders to take action. They also highlight how dysfunctional the White House has become in responding effectively to major crises — even when it’s a matter of life or death for millions of US citizens.
"People should keep putting pressure on their elected officials to make sure Puerto Rico is not forgotten," said Rick Trilsch, who created a petition asking the military to send the USNS Comfort to Puerto Rico. "Democracy only works if you take part of it."
The campaign to send a naval hospital ship succeeds
Trilsch, a finance administrator from Colorado, had heard about the USNS Comfort naval ship after reading about its humanitarian work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti after the earthquake. The 1,000-bed naval ship has a trauma unit and X-ray machines.
Trilsch said he had been waiting since the hurricane hit to hear news that the ship was headed to Puerto Rico.
"I assumed the order would be given at any moment and that it would be on its way to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico," he said from his office in Boulder.
That news didn't come. On Saturday, Trilsch decided to started a petition on Change.org, asking the Department of Defense to send the ship to the island, where hospitals are overwhelmed and barely functioning. He also created a Facebook page for the cause and launched the Twitter hashtag #SendtheComfort. The next day, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined the call:
President Trump, Sec. Mattis, and DOD should send the Navy, including the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico now. These are American citizens. https://t.co/J2FVg4II0n— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 24, 2017
On Wednesday, the Defense Department said the Comfort would depart Friday for Puerto Rico. There was no explanation about why it took so long to activate. The ship was sitting at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.
The saga shows how frustrated the public has become with the basic FEMA disaster response in Puerto Rico: Americans are starting realize that only the military is equipped to handle a disaster of this magnitude.
Members of Congress have also been pushing the White House to send more military support to the island.
On Wednesday, Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, requesting a meeting to discuss how to get the military more involved.
"We believe the US Military is best positioned to save lives, meet the immediate needs of the people with food and water, set up a functioning telecommunications system and establish medical triage and emergency medical services," they wrote.
In recent days, the DOD has promised to double the number of military personnel responding to the disaster and is sending more ships and planes.
Without the public outcry, it's unclear whether the administration would have made the same decisions.
Pressure to lift shipping restrictions in Puerto Rico succeeds too
As the Defense Department announced that the USNS Comfort was headed to Puerto Rico, pressure was mounting for the administration to temporarily suspend a law that makes it expensive to ship goods to Puerto Rico.
As Vox's Matt Yglesias explains, the Jones Act requires items shipped between American ports to be transported on a ship that is American-built, American-owned, and crewed by US citizens or permanent residents. The law makes everything Puerto Ricans buy unnecessarily expensive compared to goods purchased on the mainland or other Caribbean islands. It also drives up the cost of living.
The law will create major problems for Puerto Rico as it rebuilds its wrecked infrastructure. Over the weekend, Jessica Penovich created a petition on Change.org asking the Department of Homeland Security to waive the law for 12 months. By Tuesday, it had garnered nearly 500,000 signatures. A spokesperson for Change.org said it was the eighth most popular petition of the year.
"I never imagined it would generate so much support," said Penovich, a law student of Puerto Rican heritage who lives in the Tampa Bay area. She said she created the petition because she wanted to raise awareness about how the law exploits Puerto Rico.
Another foe of the law is Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who also spent the past few days criticizing it and urging the White House to waive it:
Shipping industry supports #JonesAct b/c it's protectionist. #PuertoRico deserves better than policy decisions driven by special interests.— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) September 27, 2017
Then there was a searing op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. The editorial board lashed out at the administration's refusal to waive the law in the aftermath of Maria. They pointed out that Trump lifted it after Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida. Not doing the same for Puerto Rico meant the president was treating islanders as “second-class” citizens:
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria is an even more urgent emergency. The Category 4 storm shut down electricity, destroyed crops, and has residents scrambling to obtain food and potable water. Many of the island’s 3.4 million residents may not have power restored for weeks. At least 10 people have died, and rescue operations will be needed for months. Allowing Puerto Ricans to import cheaper petroleum, equipment and bulk supplies would help.
On Wednesday, the administration announced that it would suspend the law for 10 days. That's hardly long enough.
The White House needs to ask Congress for more relief money
The next battle mounting is for the White House to ask Congress to draft a relief package to help Puerto Rico in the long term. Trump did that about a week after Harvey hit Texas, but he has yet to do the same for Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico will need billions of dollars to rebuild hospitals and homes and repair its electric system. The island doesn't have the money, and it's up to Congress to pass a bill. They passed an $8 billion initial relief package for Texas after Harvey, and now FEMA's disaster relief fund is dwindling.
So far, the White House has not said when it will send a relief package request to Congress. It may take more public outcry to make that happen.