Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló appears to have changed his tune on the magnitude of the emergency facing the island, sending a desperate letter to Congress outlining the dire straits still plaguing the 3.4 million Americans who are considering whether they can rebuild a future in the devastated territory.
The call for help from Rosselló is certainly justified. But it comes three weeks after Hurricane Maria and on the heels of a clownish, gaffe-filled visit from President Donald Trump in which the governor had only good things to say about the federal response.
That was in sharp contrast to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who was outspoken about the inadequate federal disaster response and became the target of cyberbullying by the president, who called her “nasty” — a term he previously used to describe the first-ever US female presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a televised debate.
Rosselló, apparently trying to stay in Trump’s good graces even though he is a Democrat and the president has treated his territory with disdain, downplayed Trump’s statement on Twitter that Puerto Ricans “wanted everything done for them.”
Yet Rosselló’s letter indicates Cruz’s account of conditions on the ground was much more accurate than the governor or the president’s rosy spin. Just Monday, Trump tweeted mixing self-praise with his usual attacks on the press’ accurate reporting of Puerto Rico’s dire conditions:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2017
Ten days ago, the governor himself was touting disaster relief efforts and saying Puerto Rico was “on a steady path to improvement.”
That’s not what Rosselló was telling Trump and Congress in two separate letters Monday. Instead, citing a likely physical damage toll of $95 billion, or approximately 150% of the island’s yearly economic output, the governor pleaded:
“In addition to the physical destruction, Puerto Rico’s economy has ground to near a standstill. Very few businesses are operating and those that have reopened have done so at a highly-reduced level compared to where they were prior to Hurricane Maria. Despite everyone’s best efforts, it is very likely that many businesses will not be back in operation and running at pre-hurricane levels for a considerable period of time. Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls. As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.
We are grateful for the federal emergency assistance that has been provided so far. However, absent extraordinary measures to address the halt in economic activity in Puerto Rico, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, and the unmet basic needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico will become even greater. This could lead to an acceleration of the high pace of outmigration of Puerto Rico residents to the U.S. mainland impacting a large number of states as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and beyond.”
Importantly, he added (emphasis ours):
“Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico’s central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls. As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.“
The letter also calls for more than $1.5 billion in funding on top of the requests already being made to Congress.
In response to calls from a local banker, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has already deployed an undisclosed amount of cash to Puerto Rico, according to Bloomberg, in order to meet the needs of an economy made cash-only by the almost absolute loss of electric power.
Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, Trump’s response to the disaster, widely criticized for being far less sympathetic and focused than his response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, appears to be veering in the wrong direction.
Despite protests from lawmakers, the White House has allowed a 10-day shipping waiver from a century-old law known as the Jones Act, which only allows US-built and -operated vessels to make cargo shipments between US ports, to expire. This will raise the cost of shipping goods to the island at the time when it needs it least — an openly callous policy tinged with discrimination.