IN THE more than three months since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, a lot of excuses have been offered to explain the failure to restore power and provide other critical services to American citizens who live on the island. Like the enormity of the devastation. Or the complexity of the work. Or the difficulty of getting workers and supplies to a place surrounded by water. Yadda yadda yadda.
The real reasons for the deplorable response to conditions in Puerto Rico are clear: the island’s lack of political muscle and the mainland’s lack of political will. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has no U.S. senator, no vote in the House and no electoral votes in presidential elections — and so it is all too easy for the White House and Congress to turn a blind eye to the needs of its vulnerable population.
More than 100 days after Maria swept the island on Sept. 20, nearly half of its residents — more than 1.5 million people — remain in the dark, and officials are now saying it will take to the end of February to restore most power. Hard-to-reach rural areas will not get power until the end of May — “just in time,” the New York Times noted, “for the 2018 hurricane season.” Lack of power is seen as a major factor in the higher death rates that occurred after the storm passed, and it continues to pose a danger as Puerto Rico struggles with limited resources, strained health-care services and the worsening of an already-poor economy.
If this were happening in any state — including another group of islands, Hawaii — there would be uninterrupted media attention and demands for action. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put it following a visit this week to Puerto Rico: “If this were happening in Connecticut, there would be riots in the streets.”
Some of the blame for the prolonged power outage — which energy experts say is unprecedented in modern U.S. history — falls on the island’s electric power authority and its questionable decision to entrust restoration work to a tiny Montana company. That, though, does not let the federal government off the hook for a delayed response, bungled coordination and insufficient resources. Adding insult to injury was Congress’s enactment of a sweeping tax plan that punishes Puerto Rico with new business taxes even as a stalemate developed over disaster relief.
It is time to stop shortchanging Puerto Rico. President Trump needs to acknowledge that more needs to be done and done sooner. Congress needs to allocate the resources sufficient to help Puerto Rico get back on its feet, including ensuring Medicaid costs will be covered. If not, there will be a further exodus of Puerto Ricans from the ravaged island to the mainland, where — need we remind the White House and lawmakers — their votes will count.
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