Puerto Rico Needs More Than Just Paper Towels

SAN JUAN—After a weekend golf trip to his private club in New Jersey and a recurring bout of racist tweets about NFL athletes, Donald Trump finally got around to visiting Puerto Rico this week to throw paper towels at suffering islanders.

Trump’s trip to San Juan came a full two weeks after Hurricane Maria left millions of Puerto Ricans without power, communications, running water, and in many cases, roofs over their houses. But the devastation of the storm didn’t distract the president from attacking the mayor of San Juan, complaining about the island’s debt, criticizing Puerto Ricans for wanting “everything to be done for them,” and bragging about how great his relief efforts have been.

It’s probably pretty safe to say Puerto Ricans aren’t exactly loving on the “Great Orange Savior” right now.

But unlike the president, most Puerto Ricans aren’t talking about Donald Trump these days. They’ve got more important things to worry about, like getting food and water. They’re busy waiting in hours-long lines for gas and cash, trying to figure out where to find a cellphone signal to let loved ones know they’re okay. Some are trying to figure out where to get medicine, where to sleep, where to go to the bathroom, and where to take a shower. Beyond the immediate needs, Puerto Ricans are starting to wonder when they’ll be able to go to work and school, or whether they’ll have to leave the island altogether.

Not too many on-island Puerto Ricans are fretting over Trump’s tweets. At least not the ones I talked to this week.

I went to Puerto Rico to find my 96-year-old grandmother, who lives in Ponce. We hadn’t heard from her or my cousins in San Juan since the storm.

When my plane touched down in San Juan, the passengers erupted in cheers and applause. The plane’s cabin filled with the song Vivir La Vida, by Puerto Rico’s own Marc Anthony; the lyrics are about singing, laughing, and dancing your way through life, even in hard times.

The music struck a discordant note of hope in what had been a very distressing time in the days after the storm. But it reflects the Puerto Rican spirit. Repeatedly during my two-day stay on the island, I saw people facing extreme difficulties with humor and grace. People are making the most of an incredibly shitty situation and taking matters into their own hands. I saw people clearing roads, sharing what little they had with neighbors, and making jokes to lift the mood in long gas lines. In Ponce, I walked into a darkened bar that was full of people singing, dancing, and playing guitar by candlelight.

The people’s spirit was contrasted to the view from my car window as I drove across the island: a completely destroyed power grid; electrical poles toppled over like dominoes; wires strewn all over the streets; magnificent trees uprooted from the ground. I saw shattered windows and rooftops torn from houses. Nothing looked like the Puerto Rico I know—the magical place of my childhood, the tropical paradise with beautiful beaches, rainforests, and melodic tree frogs called Coqui.

Puerto Rico is battered and bruised

Puerto Rico is battered and bruised

The natural world has been turned upside down. The once-green mountains are now brown and stripped bare. Wild horses with protruding ribs stood bewilderedly in the middle of highway medians. Lost dogs and cats wandered the streets, looking for their homes. The bees, without flowers to land on, banded together in desperately hungry swarms.

When we got to Ponce, on the southern coast of the island, our hotel was closed due to the storm, so we stayed in a house without a generator. It was dark and hot as hell. The place was full of mosquitoes. Without refrigeration, all the food had rotted, attracting even more insects. I can’t imagine having to live like that for months.

The darkness makes you vulnerable, but the phone doesn’t work and there’s nobody to call even if something happens to you. There’s a lot that can go wrong. And that’s how so many on the island are living.

What I didn’t see was also noticeable. There was very little military aid. I saw a few Humvees on the main highway from San Juan to Ponce, and a couple of helicopters. But there seemed to be very little response given the scale of the disaster.

I expected to see a well-coordinated relief effort like the ones we’ve seen after other recent hurricanes in response to Harvey and Irma—even Katrina, for that matter. Perhaps the presence of the U.S. military has increased in Puerto Rico since I left the island. But I certainly didn’t see much of it while I was there— a full nine days after the storm.

Instead, there were thousands of supplies in shipping containers that were not being distributed. Why was it taking the federal government so long to spring to action? Trump hasn’t even announced the amount of aid that his administration would earmark to save the island.

Trump’s utterly inappropriate response is infuriating. It’s shameful that he would say the crisis in Puerto Rico is screwing the federal budget—something he would never dare say in the aftermath of the storms in Texas and Florida. So why is he saying this now?

And to dismiss the storm as a lesser tragedy than Hurricane Katrina is just wrong. The tragedy of Maria is still unfolding. What comes after the storm may be worse than the storm itself, as the death toll continues to increase. The situation on the island will continue to worsen if we don’t get people the help they need now. It’s a mess that’s going to take more than the half-dozen rolls of paper towels that Trump lobed at the victims this week.

The author (left) with her grandma and cousin Lischka Cuin

The author (left) with her grandma and cousin Lischka Cuin

But I want to end on a positive note. I’m happy to report that I found my grandmother alive and well. She was lying on her bed, reading a book. My cousins were also ok. They have no running water, but a generator provides limited electricity for few hours of the day—a luxury many others don’t have.

I suspect this crisis will force many people to leave Puerto Rico. But that’s no excuse to abandon those who choose to stay on the island. Trump may want the U.S. to retreat from the world stage, but America should never turn its back on Americans.