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Opinion We fed Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Why couldn’t President Trump?

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in October 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Maria. (Evan Vucci/AP)

José Andrés is the founder of World Central Kitchen and the co-author, with Richard Wolffe, of “We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time.”

In recent days, President Trump declared the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria's devastation of Puerto Rico an "unsung success" and dismissed findings that the disaster resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths, calling them a fiction designed to make him "look as bad as possible."

Leadership matters, and based on what we witnessed while feeding Puerto Rico in the hurricane's immediate aftermath, the lack of leadership from the Oval Office had deadly consequences. No wonder the president insists on celebrating an imaginary triumph and denying the ugly reality.

The enormous challenges that Maria left behind were entirely solvable. Within hours of landing in Puerto Rico, we attended a meeting of business leaders to tackle the crippling shortage of gasoline and diesel. Puerto Ricans were waiting in line for hours to fill up their cars. The meeting produced a plan to break the logjam of deliveries and to provide security; within days, the gas lines were gone.

If that kind of recovery can happen with fuel for cars, why didn't it happen with fuel for people?

There are no good answers to this question, and there are far too few people asking it. Republican leaders in Congress blocked any serious or extended inquiry into what happened and why. There have been just two Senate hearings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's administrator, even though the agency wrote contracts worth many millions to businesses that failed to deliver lifesaving food and tarps for shelter. 

Our organization, World Central Kitchen, is a small nonprofit founded in 2010, after the Haiti earthquake, to deliver smart food solutions after such disasters. Last year, we organized chefs, cooks and thousands of volunteers to prepare and deliver more than 3.7 million meals to Americans in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. We did not own any delivery trucks, helicopters or superpowers. We just got to work, as a team, to feed people. 

Along the way, we found doctors and nurses who were going hungry while they were trying to save lives without reliable power or vital medical supplies. There were National Guard troops who hadn't eaten a real meal in weeks. We found that there was ample water on the island but a chronic lack of public-health information and a disregard for getting regular water supplies to the people.

Puerto Rico did not have to suffer this way. But if you ask anyone who was responsible for getting food and water to Puerto Ricans after Maria, the answer goes around and around. Everyone is responsible, which means that nobody is. 

There is an organization — the American Red Cross — mandated by Congress to lead humanitarian efforts in partnership with the government. But it has no capacity to prepare food and relies instead on a network of volunteers, most of them retirees, organized by the Southern Baptist Convention. This plan is as strange as it sounds. The Southern Baptists do incredible work, but they were unable to prepare food on a hurricane-wrecked island.

The American Red Cross told us a month after the hurricane it had no money to help us respond to Maria and was struggling to fundraise to help the island. We were disheartened to discover much later that, by its own account, the Red Cross collected $71.4 million in donations to respond to Maria. The organization's own numbers show that it had spent or committed only about half that amount as of March 20.

Of course, the U.S. government had far more cash and assets available. Puerto Rico has served as a military base in the past, and the extraordinary capabilities of the U.S. military could have overcome many of the challenges facing the island.

But the buck stops in the Oval Office, and there is no avoiding the chronic lack of leadership from the president. He chose to play golf or to tweet about the National Football League, instead of whipping together a robust government response to Maria.

Puerto Rico's problems did not start with the president or the hurricane. They began long ago with the island's third-class status as an American colony in all but name. Until the island gains full representation — as its own state or as part of another state — it will continue to be treated as only partially American, with partial funding. 

The United States could begin to make amends by immediately repealing the Jones Act, a maritime commerce law that adds to the cost of every container delivery and saps the island's economy. Trump temporarily suspended the act last year; it should be abolished. That would be a good first step in the development of what's really needed: a Marshall Plan to rebuild Puerto Rico's infrastructure and economy. The island has never recovered economically from the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the end of offshore tax breaks in 2006. If it helps, call it the Trump Plan for Puerto Rico.

Most important, to honor the memory of those who died and to prevent future deaths, new leadership is needed — in government and across the nonprofit sector — to learn the lessons of the failures in Puerto Rico and devise new ways of thinking in a crisis. Puerto Rico was fortunate that Hurricane Florence didn't come its way, but another hurricane is sure to strike the island at some point — and next time, the United States needs to be prepared.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump says he did great after Maria. Puerto Ricans say otherwise.

By Irwin Redlener: The Puerto Rico death toll will only get higher

James Downie: The forgotten dead of Puerto Rico

Lynn R. Goldman: We calculated the deaths from Hurricane Maria. Politics played no role.