This appeared in Wednesday’s Washington Post
Imagine a catastrophe that left the residents of Montana, Maine and Rhode Island without power, water and food. Immediate help would be rushed to them. Any suggestion they might have to wait months to get electricity or phone service restored would be rejected out of hand. Similarly, there should be no question – only urgency – in getting help to the 3.4 million Americans who live in Puerto Rico and whose lives have been devastated by back-to-back hurricanes this month.
A week after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico on the heels of a glancing blow from Hurricane Irma, the scope of a worsening humanitarian crisis has come into sharper focus, as have the challenges of getting supplies and help to the stricken island. At least 16 people died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria, and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has warned that continuing problems could threaten more lives. Of particular concern is a dam in the country’s northwest corner that was weakened by Maria and could collapse, threatening thousands.
President Donald Trump last week approved a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico that permits hurricane victims to receive federal aid, but more may need to be done to overcome the logistical obstacles of getting help to an island 1,000 miles from Miami. Among the suggestions: stepping up military assistance and waiving federal restrictions on foreign ships’ transportation of cargo to Puerto Rico and other areas affected by Maria, as was done after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit.
The president’s silence over the weekend about Puerto Rico while he fomented controversy over football caused worry about whether Puerto Rico would be a priority for the administration. That homeland security adviser Tom Bossert and Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, traveled to Puerto Rico on Monday, and that Trump plans a trip next week, are hopefully signs of the administration taking the crisis seriously. So, too, is the promise by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that Washington will make sure the people of Puerto Rico “have what they need.”
The first order of business must be getting people out of harm’s way and providing life’s essentials. But there also is a need for a sound, long-term rebuilding and economic plan. Even before the storms struck, the island’s infrastructure and economy were in tatters, causing many to flee to the mainland for better lives. Thought needs to go into how to rebuild better and not simply replace. Does it make sense, for example, to rebuild a power grid dependent on diesel generators, or should this tropical island explore alternative energy, such as solar or wind?
The people of Puerto Rico face a long and difficult reconstruction process, but out of what their governor called this “critical disaster,” there also can be opportunities for improvement.
© 2017, The Washington Post