This weekend, while it seemed like all of Twitter was engaged in a culture war between President Trump and the NFL, I was worrying about my family in Puerto Rico. While POTUS sent tweet after tweet decrying Black players for taking a knee during the national anthem, my parents had to drive around trying to find enough cell service to send me a text message. The first communication I had with them in three days started with Mi amor, estamos bien ("My love, we're okay"). I'm lucky, many boricuas in the mainland still have not been able to reach their loved ones nearly a week after Maria made landfall.
While Trump railed about the NFL's "failing ratings" (which isn't true), some acquaintances waited in line for a grueling nine hours hoping to get gas, only to find there was none left. And while the president kept talking about how athletes were "disrespecting" the flag, nearly 70,000 Puerto Ricans were forced to flee their homes as a dam came close to collapsing.
The last days have been some of the worst of my life. It's shocking — though not entirely surprising — that the media and the president have barely acknowledged the devastation caused by Maria. Why is no one talking about the 3.4 million U.S. citizens who were impacted by the storm? Where are the fundraisers and concerts showing the same support that residents of Houston and south Florida felt after Harvey and Irma? Instead of paying attention to the growing humanitarian crisis impacting our fellow countrymen, the president of the United States spent the weekend picking a fight with professional athletes over their decision to exercise their First Amendment rights. Inevitably, the media and all of America's attention followed.
Trump has tweeted just five times about Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico since last week — once on Tuesday before the storm hit the island and then Wednesday night, promising his support. Then he tweeted again Monday night, after days of being called out for not posting anything about Puerto Rico. In his tweets, he pretty much blamed the island for the status of its infrastructure and mentioned it has to deal with its debt crisis. He hasn't mentioned the rest of the Caribbean once, not even the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were deeply impacted in the aftermath of Maria and Irma.
Meanwhile, combining his original tweets and retweets, Trump posted about the controversy surrounding the national anthem and athletes more than 20 times over the last couple of days. More. Than. Twenty. Times.
Right now, the situation in Puerto Rico is being described as "apocalyptic." Most Puerto Ricans are without electricity and water, with no way to communicate, an unsustainable situation that could last months. Many have been left homeless by the storm. The local government instituted a curfew and has urged residents to stay at home after reports of looters and violence. Roughly 80% of the agriculture on the island was wiped away by the storm, and there are fears islanders will have to import even more products. And due to the current economic crisis, it will be almost impossible to rebuild. Puerto Rico is more than $70 billion in debt, which led the Republican-controlled Congress and the Obama administration to establish a fiscal control board in 2016 through a legislation called "PROMESA." The board is focused on austerity measures, so it's only slated to allocate $1 billion from the current budget to rebuilding efforts after Maria. (It's unclear at this point how much rebuilding efforts will cost in total.)
While Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló is asking Washington to extend more help to the island, Trump believes that going after athletes' First Amendment rights (rights which he says he "loves") is more important.
We need more than just a disaster declaration — we need immediate action. Unfortunately, that's not the case. For example, the Trump administration refused to waive a 1920s law banning foreign ships from bringing cargo to Puerto Rico and other areas affected by Hurricane Maria, even though the federal restrictions were waived after Harvey and Irma. The White House also has yet to send a disaster aid request to Congress, which would start the process of helping the island beyond the support provided by FEMA.
Journalists everywhere should hold the president accountable for not doing more. But once again, the media is distracted by Trump's BS. The five main political talk shows on Sunday spent less than a minute talking about the crisis in Puerto Rico. In yesterday's edition of The New York Times the front page was all about the NFL, while the story about Puerto Rico was below the fold. (Even more frustrating when you consider that more Puerto Ricans live in New York than in any other state.) Even Refinery29 has done less coverage on Maria than we did on Irma and Harvey. As of Monday afternoon, we had published exactly five stories about Hurricane Maria — and two were about Jennifer Lopez.
The sense of helplessness I've felt in the last days is difficult to describe. My friends and family in Puerto Rico are among the lucky ones, but that doesn't make it easy to be disconnected from them. Sitting in New York City there isn't much I can do but try to help through organizing donations. I feel so guilty to be comfortable with electricity and running water in my tiny apartment. I've missed my family every day since I packed my entire life in two suitcases and moved to NYC three years ago. But now the distance feels harder than ever.
In the past, I was irritated when Trump's tweets distracted people from important issues (see healthcare, the travel ban, the Russia investigation), but now it's personal. What's going on in Puerto Rico right now is life or death — quite literally. For someone who promised to "be there to help," Trump is doing a lousy job. And for people to get sidetracked by yet another one of his Twitter feuds is infuriating. Puerto Rico — and the 3.4 million Americans living there — deserve our help now. To not do so is unpatriotic.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 25, 2017 at 3 p.m. It has since been updated to reflect new information about the Trump administration's response to the hurricane and President Trump's new tweets about the NFL and Puerto Rico.
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