It’s hard to believe that we’ve observed the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. Unlike previous superstorms, the damage caused by Sandy is still very visible in many oceanfront communities. There are quite a few families that are still in the process of rebuilding their homes, and others have been unable to rebuild at all.
The New York region has experienced a number of serious storms over the years. I still remember being without power and having no way to get out of my home during Hurricane Bob in 1991. Other storms since then have caused a great deal of havoc. And the vast majority of South Shore apartment dwellers and homeowners can easily recount their experiences in Sandy, because five years isn’t a very long time.
So take a mental snapshot of Sandy and transfer it to the island of Puerto Rico. To understand the scope of the damage there, double or triple what we experienced with Sandy. Unlike any storm in modern history, Puerto Rico has been ravaged by wind and water, the result of a direct hit by Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm.
For the record, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands belong to the United States, and their 3.6 million inhabitants are American citizens. They can travel back and forth to the States with no restrictions. For as long as I can remember, Puerto Rico has been a favorite destination of tens of thousands of New Yorkers.
Having traveled there as far back as the 1960s, I fondly remember the beautiful sights from one end of the island to the other. El Yunque National Forest attracts thousands of visitors with its exotic flowers and trees, along with an abundant crop of frogs and birds. The island’s golf courses have always been popular with visitors from the metropolitan area. Downtown Old San Juan has long featured great restaurants and old-world charm.
At least for now, however, many features of this spectacular island are history. Hurricane Maria unleashed a nightmare that is still unfolding. Power has yet to be restored to the vast majority of the island. Water and other basic necessities are still not available, especially in remote parts of the island. Its economy has long been dependent on tourism, but there is no prospect for a revival of that industry in the near future.
An even bigger factor in the destruction of Puerto Rico, however, is the United States. The handicapping of the territory as an economic engine dates back to 1920, when Congress adopted the Merchant Marine Act, also known as the Jones Act. It was meant to promote economic development, but there was, and still is, one catch: Only American ships can deliver goods to American ports. For instance, medical supplies from Germany have to be transferred to an American vessel in order for them to be delivered to San Juan, which can drastically increase their prices to Puerto Ricans.
After Maria blasted across the island, President Trump was asked to suspend the Jones Act so emergency supplies could be delivered by foreign ships. Under pressure from American shipping companies, he refused, but finally agreed to waive the act for 10 days. He offered a fragile island help, but not much, and the contrast to other actions he took to help areas damaged by storms was striking.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Hurricane Irma hit Florida, Trump, conscious of the politics of those two states, moved heaven and earth to respond to the devastation. And at the same time that Congress was giving big bundles of cash to those ailing states, Trump offered bankrupt Puerto Rico a $4.5 billion loan (interest unknown).
The continuing response by the U.S. to the tragedy in Puerto Rico has been disgraceful. The number of Federal Emergency Management Agency staffers assigned to the island is only a small fraction of the number that were sent to Texas and Florida. Making clear that he cared much less about Puerto Rico, Trump mocked its dire financial situation when he visited, and made no effort to travel to the hardest-hit parts of the island.
The ties between Puerto Rico and America — and especially New York — are historic, and remain strong. It’s sad that Trump has gone out of his way to disrespect an island whose official status is territory of the United States.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.