As Hurricane Irma bore down on my Florida home, just before it broke away at the last second, I sat in the shuttered semi-darkness, listening to the wind gradually spooling up to the monolith-from-2001 howl, asking myself what I was doing:
“This state is a 450-mile long limestone mistake barely set above two giant bodies of water. It is a strip of grassy muck and bugs meant to be kicked and spun and vacuumed to death between two vast reserves of power, and maybe it was wrong to ever set foot here.”
As I’ve written before, the great, slow anxiety of a storm is asking what destiny is written for you and waiting to meet it. The roof will hold or it won’t. The ground will flood or it won’t. You think only of what the storm has chosen and not the many little things that, in its aftermath, men will choose too. What you do not ask—what the people of Puerto Rico might have long since stopped asking, in the month since Irma and the three weeks since the Category 5 Maria put the island through a Cuisinart—is if anyone else will care.
They have to care, and not just because you will go crazy with despair looking into the future and assuming otherwise. They have to care because it looks politically fatal to do anything else. They have to care because it is inhuman not to. And with three weeks past in Puerto Rico, with a phony death toll slowly ticking upward, with disappearing and reappearing emergency statistics, with 83% of the island without power, with food resources unreliable and people drinking animal-tainted water and sharing dwindling improvisational supplies, with veterans recording videos about hungry citizens seemingly marooned on the frontier of civilization, that thin tether to hope may be broken permanently.
Until now, America has been willing only to let the quiet calamities fester and infect and degrade, often with far more lethality, injury and contempt for cost than overnight disasters. Look to the Superfund site upstream or the refreshing orange electric-goo creeks of coal country. Or look to the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, which began poisoning its people in April 2014 and “became a crisis” in September 2015.
But the big ticket stuff—the telegenic suffering of real civilizational collapse that pops on camera next to the yellow of Anderson Cooper’s slicker and the stark green camo of a Humvee—well, that we still gave a damn enough to handle.
But maybe the big lesson of the Bush Administration’s bungling of Hurricane Katrina wasn’t that government always has to show up but rather that there is a constituency out there that no longer cares if the really visually sickening catastrophe goes not just ignored but worsened. That there is a tiered system—maybe even color-coded—of which citizens need rescuing. That there’s a virtue to cutting out the deadwood by salutary neglect. That a penny saved is a penny earned toward rescuing more critical voters. That we have to destroy the island to monetize it. That each new disaster is a chance to discover whether a new precedent of designating an expendable citizenry starts with you.
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We have already seen the Trump administration take emergency steps to assign blame.
Trump and his legion of online CHUDs must have thrilled at the emergence of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as the presumptuous spokesperson of her own constituents. Here was a woman who not only wasn’t a blonde raptor but who also wore glasses and hadn’t washed her hair, and she was calling bullshit on everything.
Trump targeted Cruz as a pawn of the Democrats and a grandstander, and attention swiveled to criticizing her time management, implying that her spending time on TV was inhibiting rescue work. This neatly elided the fact that not only is Cruz the mayor of only one city, but also that when the FEMA assistance requested by Puerto Rico’s governor arrived, Cruz’s ability to direct emergency response effectively ended.
Moreover, that emergency plans for utilities remained (as they do) in the hands of the private entities that administer them and that San Juan’s and Puerto Rico’s hazard mitigation plans were approved by FEMA in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Anything FEMA needed to know or do was already written down or ready to be explained by a city or regional planner. What was left to Cruz was what she was doing: passionately advocating for the survival of her people, to anyone who would listen.
From Cruz, we moved on to rescuing the Trump administration from Puerto Rican citizens themselves, who dared live in a place with infrastructure that’s a “disaster” and a financial crisis imposed on them. Just as the victims of Katrina were underprepared, should have evacuated, failed to update their houses, or just committed some as-yet undetected act of meteorological culpability that fitted them with some budgetary mark of Cain, we’ll doubtless learn how careless or spendthrift or bestially heedless of danger Puerto Ricans are, ignoring that their danger already lies far outside even the most responsible citizen’s capacity to mitigate.
When the government tells you to prepare for a storm, it cautions that “being prepared means having your own food, water and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours.” Even the most vigilant citizens of means rarely keep more than seven days of supplies on hand. By any calculation, those citizens in Puerto Rico would have started running out of food and water 16 days ago, having made the reckless bargain that their government would not take more than a week to keep them from dying.
And, just to be on the safe side, in case Cruz and Puerto Rico’s culpability for their own destruction were not dispositive, there is always journalism to blame. You can’t rebuild an island whose destruction is only a media fable.
What can be done now is not inexpensive, but it also doesn’t take a genius. If America could resupply and sustain Berlin by air 68 years ago, it can blanket Puerto Rico with water and non-perishable food today. (What’s the downside? That, years from now, poor unsuspecting children stumble across an unopened cache of things that keep them alive?) Meanwhile, we can forgive the island’s debt. Puerto Rico’s bondholders can shit in one hand and let their unalienable right to liquidate an island and its people pile up in the other and see which one is taller.
Until then, Puerto Rico only has powerlessness, in a literal and brutal way that far exceeds the term’s abuse in modern usage. It is a powerlessness of stifling heat, spoiling medicine, abandoned hospitals, festering water, the stench of dead-animal rot and days piled on one another beneath the endless hum of bloodsucking insects. It is a powerlessness of being the third tragedy in a quick succession of them, when national attention has already exhausted most of its sympathies. It is a powerlessness of being the wrong color people on color TV, in a territory most of their fellow citizens think belongs to someone else. And it is a powerlessness of being from a place electorally insignificant to the people between them and the inexorable process of sickness and death.
Only a very few of us are equipped for that literal powerlessness—where our expendability is contingent not on our being people but on being the right kind of people, waiting for rescue in a world lit only by fire. For the citizens of Northern California—the California this president blames for three million phantom votes that made him the most rejected president in American history to not yet inspire an actual civil war—it may be time to question how long they will live in one too.