Opinion

Trump's Puerto Rico disaster

It turns out former reality TV stars don't know how to wisely manage large humanitarian emergencies

Puerto Rico remains in ruins. Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria wrecked the island, most of its residents still lack power and cell phone service, and will remain that way for months. Worse, a huge fraction remain without a steady supply of food and water.

Despite the fact that relief supplies are finally starting to reach the remoter parts of the island, it is beyond dispute that President Trump has badly botched the response to Hurricane Maria. It turns out the former reality TV star does not have a clue about wisely managing large and complex organizations.

So what went wrong? Probably the biggest mistake, it seems, was a lack of preparation. It has been obvious for years that Puerto Rico's infrastructure — especially its elderly and dilapidated power plants and electrical grid — were highly vulnerable to a big hurricane. In the critical few days when it became clear that the island was going to get hammered, a smart disaster-response agency would have stockpiled supplies (especially diesel to power generators) in secure locations on the island, prepared a lot more on the mainland, and readied planes and boats to move rescue workers and material as fast as possible after the storm passed.

Instead, federal agencies were caught flat-footed, and had to scramble around after the fact to round up supplies. Many were assembled, but lack of coordination led to bottlenecks. On Thursday of last week there were still over 10,000 shipping containers stuck in port, as trucks did not have enough fuel and many roads had not been cleared.

Contrary to Trump's complaints that it "is the most difficult job because it's on the island — it's on an island in the middle of the ocean," all this is quite basic stuff — how any reasonably thoughtful person would conclude a hurricane response ought to be organized after thinking about it for five minutes. And while the logistical challenge of moving supplies that far into the Caribbean is moderately challenging, it is not a hundredth as difficult as, say, the Normandy landing.

Indeed, a wiser government would have taken steps years and years ago to improve its disaster response beyond this elementary stuff. For example, one option worth considering is adapting a few of the U.S. Navy's fleet of supercarriers so they could plug their power plants into an electrical grid. Each one of those ships is powered by a pair of nuclear reactors capable of putting out 104 megawatts together — enough to power a small city, or key locations in a large one like hospitals, aid shelters, sewage treatment plants, and so forth. That would be useful not only in situations like this, but also as a handy tool to loan to other countries with similar problems.

But we don't have a smart, attentive president; we have a confused old man whose two favorite activities are playing golf and getting mad at the TV. So instead of focusing on Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Maria, he issued a disaster declaration, then spent a long weekend in New Jersey playing golf, tweeting about kneeling football players, and basically ignoring the crisis — an inexcusable piece of laziness that seriously worsened the situation. He then spent half the following week losing his temper on Twitter about the NFL.

When it became clear that the relief efforts were not remotely sufficient, Trump did not admit his error and promise to fix things — or even just keep his trap shut and let the relief effort proceed. Instead he picked a fight on Twitter with the mayor of San Juan (the capital of Puerto Rico) and continued to attack her all weekend. It's the perfect storm of Trump's stupidity, incompetence, and extreme hypersensitivity to criticism from minorities, especially women.

As maddening as this failure to address the immediate humanitarian emergency is, it's important to remember that it will take months of additional work to repair the structural damage once supplies of food and water are established. Most buildings on Puerto Rico were damaged, and the power system was all but wiped out. In a sane world, this would be something of an opportunity to build more durable housing stock and make long-overdue infrastructure upgrades — especially a modern electrical grid with new, low-emission generators. (On a semi-remote island, renewable energy has the added benefit of not requiring fuel — most existing generators there use fuel oil or coal — to be shipped in at great expense.)

But it seems highly likely that even if federal agencies and the military do manage to supply the most critical necessities, the Republican Congress and President Trump will do little or nothing to fix the longer-term problems in Puerto Rico. It's entirely possible that the worst is yet to come.

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