When Herb Geller wrote of the sad plight of the Puerto Rican people on their hurricane-devastated island (“Seasoned Words,” Oct. 26, North Salem News), I shared his concern. Having served the health needs of Puerto Ricans as a pharmacist in New York City for 20 years, I had grown to know them intimately as good family people and worthy friends.
However, when Geller demeans President Trump’s extreme efforts to address the dire needs of Puerto Rico, I believe that he failed to make any effort to ascertain the difficulties that were involved which slowed the emergency response compared to those in Texas and Florida.
The president stated that the emergency response presented unique problems that were not faced on the mainland. Unfortunately, Trump lacked the glib political background to give us a full understanding of the challenges faced. Whereas on the mainland, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) was able to mass supplies and equipment near the borders of damaged areas, the island of Puerto Rico presented a much different problem. All supplies had to be sent by sea and air. Therein lay the problem, as airport runways were destroyed and had to be rebuilt and seaports were rendered treacherous and had to be cleared and stabilized before they could be used. So that at the very outset it was impossible to deliver supplies of food, water, fuel and the heavy equipment that would be required for the cleanup and rebuilding. In other words, the initial slow response was unavoidable.
But President Trump did not throw his hands up in the air and surrender. He went to work. Puerto Rico was the benefactor of his vast logistic experience gained through decades of business practices. Trump dispatched the U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue missions and to secure the seaports and open roadways. He sent six FEMA task forces comprising about 4,000 personnel (including engineers, technical specialists, doctors and canine search teams) to plan and manage operations.
When reports came back to him of the failure of Puerto Rican local officials to provide sufficient manpower due to the collapse of their communications systems, President Trump sent 14,500 military troops to fill the gap. On the mainland, electric power had been restored by local companies with assistance from adjacent states. When the president was told that this wasn’t happening in Puerto Rico, he sent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to organize and work with the electric companies and private contractors. When the president was informed that many island supply routes were cut off, he dispatched 14 Coast Guard cutters to deliver 68 helicopters for the purpose of delivering supplies to the isolated villages. President Trump sent hundreds of generators and even some 50,000-watt electric generator plants. On learning that the hospitals weren’t able to function, he rushed the largest hospital ship in the world to the island along with airships for patient evacuation flights and dozens of barges to collect patients in outlying communities. The president placed Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan in charge of overseeing operations and even sent Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Force to assist in distributing FEMA supplies of millions of meals, liters of water, infant care kits, cots and roofing kits.
Gov. Ricard Rossello of Puerto Rico, though a Democrat, lauded President Trump for his superb response to their cry for assistance. Meanwhile, the mayor of San Juan took cheap political shots at our president even as she stood in front of stacks of undistributed bottled water. Her excuse? Communications were down and the truckers were unable to contact their drivers. She never thought to send her staff, municipal employees and police to summon the drivers to work. Apparently her job as a politician wasn’t to serve her residents, it was to criticize Trump.
To better understand how FEMA functions, I would cite my experience with them. During my tenure as town supervisor, I twice attended full-day FEMA seminars. They went through a lot of processes, but their message was concise. They would send precisely what was requested: water, meals, cots, earth-moving equipment, etc. The municipality had to provide the quantity, the item number from their manual and the place of delivery. They expected that our town emergency responders would manage distribution and that our highway or public works department employees would operate the equipment.
Of course, with the magnitude of devastation of the hurricanes, President Trump went the extra step and sent personnel from the National Park Service, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the departments of Defense and Agriculture, in addition to the aforementioned Coast Guard, Marines and 14,500 military troops.
Given these facts, Herb Geller’s accusation of racism by Trump is groundless and, indeed, scurrilous.
In fact, there were more Hispanics in the Houston, Texas, and Florida hurricanes than the 3.5 million people in Puerto Rico (according to the latest census).
True, President Trump could not resist chiding the Puerto Rican government on their default of $73 BILLION in municipal bonds. That default was not victimless. The bonds were held by municipal and union pension funds, universities, banks and many individuals. There has been no explanation of how the money was used or how they expected to repay it. Was any of that money misappropriated? In any case, many Americans can expect a negative effect on their pension payments, their retirement accounts or their bank interest.
Before President Obama left office, he was working on a scheme to erase that bond debt with U.S. taxpayer dollars. When Hillary failed to get elected, the scheme started to fall apart. Recently the Democrats in Congress attempted to keep up the flow of our tax dollars to pay off the bonds but the Republican-controlled Congress refused to go along. At this point Puerto Rico has defaulted on the $73 BILLION in bonds.
Given the difficulty of circumstances on the ground, I don’t see what more could have been expected of President Trump. The people of the island were fortunate that at their time of direst need there was someone in the Oval Office who is sincere, feeling, able to digest information and delegate authority to take decisive action. So, has President Trump ignored the needs of Puerto Rico or done little to help or exhibited inherent racism as Herb Geller asserted? The evidence indicates just the opposite. Yet Geller concluded that Trump should be ashamed. What do you think?
If the president’s opponent had been ensconced in the Oval Office, the people on the island might still be sitting in the dark...with a book titled “What Happened in Puerto Rico?”