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Searching for Blame in Puerto Rico—And Coming Up Short

There is no central villain in Puerto Rico's horror story, at least not yet. And that makes the devastation even harder to cope with.

Joe Raedle/Getty

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Friday delivered the harshest criticism to date of the Trump administration’s response to the humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. Appearing on CNN, Cruz was shown a video clip of acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke insisting that the crisis caused by Hurricane Maria was “a good news story.” Cruz, shocked, began to tear up. “Maybe from where she’s standing, it’s a good news story,” she said. “When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story... Damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a people-are-dying story.”

But it is also a story in which there’s no clear main villain—except perhaps Mother Nature, and even that can be disputed. Of course, there are suspects and bad actors, President Donald Trump chief among them. But none of the controversial decisions made since Maria hit Puerto Rico are the kind of colossal failures that definitively worsened this disaster. In every instance, there is nuance; a reasonable case on both sides. This does not lend itself to captivating headlines.

Yes, Trump’s public response to Puerto Rico’s devastation has been both sloppy and insensitive. After the breathtaking scale of Maria’s damage was revealed, it took him five days to say anything about it—and when he did, he had the gall to bring up the fact that Puerto Rico’s debts to Wall Street must be “dealt with,” as if to suggest that debt might prevent Trump from funding a full recovery. But it’s not likely that the president’s social media rant had any impact on the dire situation on the island. FEMA began deploying to Puerto Rico the day after the storm hit.

Delayed or insufficient military support, however, could have worsened the devastation—and some have alleged that’s exactly what happened. Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led the military’s disaster efforts during Hurricane Katrina, told NPR’s Rachel Martin that there were only 2,200 troops in Puerto Rico as of Wednesday. “Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina,” he said, “and [for Katrina] we had 20,000 federal troops, 20 ships, and 40,000 national guard.” That sounds scandalous. Given that FEMA is also handling two other major hurricane relief efforts, why isn’t there more military support? Partly, it’s because Puerto Rico is getting what its governor asked for, according to a spokesperson for the military’s Northern Command, which responds to major disasters. “Everything we do at [the Department of Defense] revolves around a request from the local government,” Lieutenant Commander Joe Nawrocki told me. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 emphasized the need for local, not federal entities to dictate response efforts. The president can override this, and many argue Trump should have ordered tens of thousands of reservists to the island. “Such a presidential order should have come before the storm, or immediately afterward,” Phillip Carter argued at Slate.

But Nawrocki counters that this could have backfired in a catastrophic way. “Say we send in 20,000 troops,” he said. “Those troops need food, water, and places to sleep. If you send in too many troops, are you taking away resources from the people?” And Puerto Rico is not like Louisiana, where troops can easily travel between bases and disaster zones. A thousand miles of ocean separates the island from the mainland, and the entire island is a disaster zone. A huge infiltration of troops could also inject more fear into traumatized citizens. “The uniform can send the right message; it can also send the wrong message.” Nawrocki said. Imagine if Trump had overridden Puerto Rican leadership, and tens of thousands of troops wound up provoking hysteria and diverting resources.

Outrage has also swelled over Trump’s initial refusal to waive the Jones Act, a law that says only U.S. ships can carry cargo between U.S. ports. Doing so would have allowed foreign ships to deliver cheaper, quicker aid to Puerto Rico, critics argued. After immense pressure and accusations that Trump was only trying to please the shipping industry, he reversed course and temporarily lifted the law. “It is an act of justice,” Cruz said on CNN on Thursday. “It will allow Puerto Ricans to rebuild and to have a cost of living that really frankly is affordable.”

But Trump’s initial refusal to waive the Jones Act, though unwarranted, likely didn’t contribute to the inability to get food, clean water, shelter, and medical supplies to people who are suffering. Getting supplies to the island was never the biggest problem; the problem has been to get supplies from San Juan, which has the island’s only major working port, to affected communities. CNN reports that there is “a diesel fuel shortage and a tangle of blocked roads,” as well as a lack of truck drivers. Nawrocki said supplies are now being moved via helicopter; logistical challenges still remain. “This is basically a tropical environment, and so many houses are completely remote,” he said. “It’s a challenge to get supplies directly to them.”

Even the most obvious villain, Mother Nature, can’t be held 100 percent responsible. It was humans, after all, who altered the climate by emitting billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We made the air and the ocean warmer; we made it more likely that a hurricane crossing over Puerto Rico would strengthen to a particularly devastating degree—and do so shortly after two other major hurricanes at the U.S., depleting the government’s disaster-response resources.

In the face of unthinkable tragedy, it’s human nature to find someone to blame, a target for our justifiable outrage. And make no mistake: It is almost certain that we will unearth colossal failures and identify villains, particularly in the coming weeks as Congress attempts to propose and pass a relief package. But at the moment, the blame can only be pointed at the U.S. government as a whole, which despite repeated warnings, neither imagined nor prepared for this worst-case scenario fueled by global warming. And unfortunately, that outrage does nothing to help Puerto Ricans right now.