Trump visit to Puerto Rico: a chance to deflect 'Katrina' comparisons

From slow arrival of aid to abrasive tweets, the President’s hurricane response has been criticized, and amplifies Trump’s long-running rift with Latino voters. 

Evan Vucci/AP
President Trump gestures after arriving at the Luis Muñiz Air National Guard Base in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Oct. 3, 2017. Trump is visiting Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricane Maria.

President Trump has been praised for his administration’s response to last month’s hurricanes in Texas and Florida – no small feat. It was the first time two Category 4 storms had hit the United States in the same year.

But Puerto Rico has been another story. Hurricane Maria left the island in utter devastation, and critics have accused the Trump administration of lagging in its response. Mr. Trump, in turn, attacked local officials as “politically motivated ingrates” and called coverage of the devastation “fake news.”

Complicating it all is Trump’s prickly relationship with Latinos, who have never seen this president as an ally. Trump’s visit Tuesday to Puerto Rico represents an opportunity to turn the page, but a narrative is already setting in: Maria is Trump’s “Katrina,” a reference to the charge that President George W. Bush had failed a devastated New Orleans after its own hurricane in 2005.

Can today’s downward spiral of recriminations and distrust be reversed?

It has to, at least to some degree, as Puerto Rico tackles the immediate task of storm recovery – an enterprise that by definition involves government at all levels, from local to federal.

“It’s almost beyond politics,” says Ed Morales, author of the forthcoming book “Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture.” “People’s lives are turned upside down.”

After what was widely seen on the island as a slow response to the disaster, federal aid and personnel are now surging in, the island’s governor reported over the weekend. On Tuesday, after landing in Puerto Rico, Trump contrasted the low hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico – 16 people – with the nearly 2,000 who died during what he called “a real catastrophe like Katrina,” demonstrating his sensitivity to comparisons to the storm that ravaged New Orleans.

Trump also gave himself an “A-plus” on the response to all the recent hurricanes that have hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

At his first briefing on the island, Trump was joined by the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, with whom he had conducted a high-profile feud in recent days via Twitter and television. Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz had accused the federal government of “killing us” with a slow response; Trump shot back with a charge of “poor leadership” and accusations that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them.”

Now the focus is the recovery itself, which promises to be a long haul. By Tuesday, nearly two weeks after the storm hit, only 7 percent of electrical service and 40 percent of telecommunications had been restored.

GOP’s challenge with Latino voters

But the longer-running narrative of Trump’s – and Republicans’ – problems with Latino voters is likely to persist long after Puerto Rico is fully back in business. Trump famously began his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and drug-dealers, and touting his plan for a southern border wall.

But he still managed to score slightly better with Latinos (28 percent of their vote) in the 2016 election than the Republican Party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney (27 percent). The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Trump’s approval rating among Hispanics at 21 percent.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, albeit without voting representation in Congress or the right to vote in presidential elections. Therefore, they are not affected by immigration issues in the same way that many Latinos on the mainland are.

Still, there has been a sharp racial/ethnic dimension to the political messaging around Puerto Rico and the comparisons with Katrina, when images of displaced and suffering African Americans dominated coverage.

“I’ve got to be honest, there’s a lot of dishonest politics going on here,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “The Democrats are clearly trying to make this Trump’s Katrina through identity politics, just because of questionable statements made about Hispanics throughout the campaign.”

Another political dimension that roils the Puerto Rico story centers on Florida: If waves of Puerto Ricans move to the Sunshine State permanently, and begin voting there, that could be a game-changer in this critical battleground state.

“So in the most purple of purple states, there’s suddenly an influx of people who have already tended to vote Democratic in elections, now they’re moving to Florida, and they really aren’t happy with Donald J. Trump,” says Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist based in Tallahassee and a Trump critic. “So guess who gets the dirty end of the stick – Republicans in Florida.”

Special hurdles in helping Puerto Rico

Lost in the fierce political battle over the optics of Puerto Rico and Trump is the reality of the relief effort itself. Jeremy Konyndyk, an expert on emergency response at the Center for Global Development in Washington, cites three key factors in assessing the Puerto Rico situation.

First, the logistics of disaster response are always tough on an island, especially given the level of devastation that Puerto Rico experienced. Second, managing several disasters at once is especially difficult, with Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico all facing historic storms in quick succession. Third comes the role of the federal government.

“The buck always stops with the president,” says Mr. Konyndyk, who served at the Obama administration’s director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID.

Typically, the “response architecture” in a natural disaster has local authorities taking the lead and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) playing a support role.

But in a situation like Puerto Rico “where FEMA has to be the show, not just support the show, it’s a heavier lift,” Konyndyk says. “That’s where presidential leadership becomes such an important variable.”

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