Who can forget the picture of George W. Bush looking out the window of Air Force One assessing the damage Katrina had wrought in New Orleans from 30,000 feet? Or when two days after the hurricane hit he finally found a safe, dry place to land, where he rendered his forever regrettable praise, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
As it turned out, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown was forced to resign for incompetence in handling of the disaster. Twelve years later, Katrina still impacts refugees who lost everything in the disaster, their loved ones, homes, jobs, cars, their pets. Katrina refugees from the flooding are still living in other states that were kind enough to give them a new start.
Like a bad movie you are seeing for a second time, hurricane damage to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, both U.S. territories whose residents are American citizens, a human disaster perhaps even worse than Katrina is unfolding. A week after the storm, Trump had not even flown over broken and dying Americans in the South Atlantic to assess their life-and-death situation — even from 30,000 feet.
The day after the hurricanes destroyed the islands, Hillary Clinton — remember her? — mentioned specific U.S. relief and hospital ships that should be sent immediately to help in coming days when citizens would be most vulnerable.
Days later, Trump responded with what every high-school student knows: that Puerto Rico is an island in a large ocean, a very large ocean, and we have lots of ships there.
Then he went to Alabama to campaign for a Republican candidate and spent most of the week fighting with NFL players because they would not stand for the national anthem. At one point in time, he had made 30 tweets about the players protesting police brutality but not one about the disasters in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Now both islands are without electrical coverage, food, homes over their heads — all as temperatures top 100 degrees. Both islands are virtually out of purified drinking water and TV coverage shows hundreds waiting in line to fill plastic gas cans with what seems to be dirty water running out of the falling hillsides.
This week, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló pleaded with the administration to send truck drivers to help reach those suffering in backcountry jungles. They had some trucks, but for many reasons drivers could not get there to drive the water and food supplies to areas that cannot even be reached by boat or plane.
At the same time, Trump was quoting Roselló for faint praise the governor was giving for the “good job, the very good job” Trump is doing to help the islands.
It is true that Roselló and his counterpart in the Virgin Islands have spoken cautiously about Trump’s response, but listen closely and you can hear their inner frustration with the slow and inept response.
Both islands took in refugees from places hit by Maria before it slammed into the American territories. They took in 4,000 refugees and later helped them get to better places when it appeared Maria was going to make a dead hit on the islands.
Roselló pleaded for days for Trump to waive the so-called Jones Act, which forbade foreign ships from docking at Puerto Rican ports for any reason. This week, Trump did waive the act, but it appears to only affect ships going into Puerto Rico, and not the Virgin Islands. Earlier, he had refused to waive the act because shipping companies wanted to keep the law in place, almost certainly to limit foreign competition.
To show the small size of the disaster zone, together Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have a population of some 4 million, about the same as Kentucky. Their size is miniscule: Puerto Rico has 3,500 square miles; The Virgin Islands, 134 square miles. That compares to Kentucky’s 40,000 square miles.
One wonders why — with our nation’s vast resources, our thousands of military personnel, National Guardsmen, Coast Guard, companies with the greatest building skills and resources on Earth — both islands could not have been crisscrossed with temporary lines of fresh water. Why did we not immediately dock hospital and relief ships close enough that personnel could reach the out-of-the-way places with medics, medicine and, if necessary, sea rations?
These are American citizens who for the last 50 years have made up a disproportionate percentage of troops fighting our wars. Apparently, Trump figures he can use his time to better please his base by trying to elect another conservative to the U.S. Senate; by trying behind the scenes to revive his efforts to take insurance away from the poor, the aged and the disabled; by protecting the honor of the American flag from S.O.B.s (his term) in the NFL.
In the meantime, listen to the roar from his political base, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Donnie.”
Frank Ashley of Lexington, a former Courier-Journal reporter, served as press secretary for two governors. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.