UPDATE: President Trump visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday and possibly heightened rather than diffused tensions between him and the U.S. island territory. He quipped that Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster had "thrown our budget a little out of whack. We've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico." Then he suggested the storm had not been a "real catastrophe" like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He also lauded Puerto Rico for its low hurricane death toll compared to Katrina.
President Trump plans to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Watching him closely here will be Puerto Ricans like Natascha Otero – who has yet to hear from family in Ponce, Puerto Rico, since Hurricane Maria demolished the island last month.
She doesn’t plan to cut the President any slack.
“When there is a disaster that affects three million American citizens and our President is too busy talking about the NFL to pay attention?” says Otero. “That hurts.”
As South Florida chair of the National Puerto Rican Agenda, a Puerto Rican advocacy group, Otero has been mobilizing volunteers from Miami to West Palm Beach. They’ve collected and shipped food, water, medicine and other relief to Puerto Rico, the Caribbean U.S. territory whose 3.4 million residents are U.S. citizens.
But she says she and other Puerto Rican leaders here haven’t felt the support from Trump they expected.
“This hurricane should have woken him up,” Otero says.
Instead, the Puerto Rico crisis has elicited what she calls a callous response from Trump – a “lack of caring and compassion.” Like his initial tweet – which he sent out five days after the hurricane struck – in which the President seemed to blame Puerto Rico itself, including its infrastructure and debt troubles, for the level of destruction.
Then came his Twitter blasts at Carmen Yulín Cruz, the liberal mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan. Cruz had criticized what she called the Trump Administration’s slow response in Puerto Rico, so Trump accused her of “poor leadership” and Puerto Ricans of not helping themselves.
Otero, who calls herself politically independent, now compares Trump’s performance in Maria to former President George W. Bush’s controversial response to Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.
“They say this is Trump’s Katrina," she said.
"The same thing happened in Katrina. They were wondering why it took [the Bush Administration] so long to go in and aid and help. And I think this is the same thing that is happening with Puerto Rico, I’m sad to say. We’re second-class citizens – away from the mainland so they don’t have to think about the island.”
Political analysts say Trump is just trying to please his conservative base. But when he goes to Puerto Rico, he’ll try to quiet the growing criticism about the speed, scale and especially the tone of his engagement there. (SEE UPDATE ABOVE)
Hurricane Maria killed at least 16 people on the island (officials say it will be higher) and left millions with no power, food or water. The President defends his response to the hurricane devastation, pointing to the military’s opening of Puerto Rican ports and the thousands of U.S. disaster relief workers on the ground.
But the problem has been execution – getting aid into the island. Many Puerto Ricans here say family and friends there still feel cut off.
“They are very disconnected from any news, and so they are isolated in terms of information,” said Miami attorney Natasha Cortes as she helped load donations at a warehouse in Wynwood last week.
“Their supplies are short in terms of water, gas and food, all of the things they need to survive," said Cortes, who heads the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida and has family in Caguas, south of San Juan. "They keep being told help is coming, but they have yet, many of them, to see it.”
On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio said he recognized those frustrations. But he insisted the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is doing its job.
“My concern was not that FEMA wasn’t responding," Rubios said.
"There’s a tremendous amount of aid that’s gone into Puerto Rico. The problem is it wasn’t getting to Puerto Ricans because it had to be distributed from San Juan to the different municipalities. Those distribution systems were victims of the storm themselves. They were broken.”
Rubio added this isn’t the time for political “bickering.” He said there would be plenty of time for that after Puerto Rico’s recovery.
But Otero of the National Puerto Rican Agenda says by then the President could face not just political bickering but political consequences.
“He has 3 million American citizens in Puerto Rico," she said, "but he has 5. 1 million American citizens that are Puerto Rican in the United States – that are now very upset.”
Unlike those in Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland can vote in U.S. elections – and most vote Democrat. Their numbers in Florida are likely to grow significantly because so many Puerto Ricans are now expected to come here to escape their island’s wreckage – and already are.
Florida Governor and conservative Republican Rick Scott knows that. Scott may run for Senator next year – and on Monday he declared a state of emergency. The reason: to make sure Florida can help Puerto Rico’s hurricane evacuees get the support they need.