When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last fall, President Donald Trump playfully lobbed rolls of paper towels to those taking shelter.
He also lobbed praise at first responders and other federal officials. Everything was going great, he said.
This was not a real catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, he reassured the public, and any reports to the contrary were nothing but fake news — the president’s go-to expression for anything he doesn’t want to hear.
(Helpful media-watching hint: The quicker Trump labels a news report “fake,” the more likely it is to be both true and important.)
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The White House even put out a propaganda video to prove how swell everything was supposedly going. Its first screen, showing government choppers to the rescue, accompanied by dramatic music, featured these words: “What the Fake News Media Will Not Show You in Puerto Rico.”
“Because of #FakeNews my people are not getting the credit they deserve for doing a great job,” Trump tweeted. Or, “Results of recovery efforts will speak much louder than complaints by San Juan Mayor.”
Those words rang hollow then — and, now, a stunning report from FEMA itself shows just how wrong his upbeat assessment was.
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency experienced personnel shortages, was caught with a critical lack of aid supplies, had trouble coordinating logistics and found itself struggling to do the work of the territorial government while responding to Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico last September,” The Washington Post reported Thursday.
The hurricane knocked out communications and left more than 3.5 million residents without power for months.
Although the official death count was under 100, independent reports have it as much higher — with some estimates at 4,600, according to the New York Times, and the main culprit as being delayed medical care.
Reporting on those conditions came in steadily from major news organizations as well as from government officials — such as the disparaged San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz. But they fell on deaf ears in the White House.
David Begnaud, the CBS News reporter who has doggedly stayed with the story of Maria’s devastation, called the report a “dizzying indictment of FEMA’s lack of preparedness.”
And you have to ask: What if the reporting on the ground had been taken seriously — as something to be heeded, and reacted to, instead of summarily dismissed? What if the president had pushed for help from wherever it could be found?
Although FEMA’s resources were stretched thin by earlier disasters in a particularly devastating hurricane season, the response surely would have improved if the president had been applying pressure.
Instead, he played the role of a cheerleader.
One of the most startling admissions in the FEMA report is that the agency had poor awareness of what was going on outside San Juan itself for many days after the hurricane.
Media reports could have — and should have — helped with that.
There’s an obvious lesson here, but one unlikely to be learned: Reporting exists for a reason. It can provide direct observation, seek out critical information, amplify the words of credible public officials.
The FEMA report talks about the dire results of their own lack of “situational awareness.” (Translation: They didn’t know what was going on.)
The early news from Puerto Rico should have served as a crucial alert. But it was branded fake. Worse than being ignored, it was kissed off as wrong.
That was dangerous, and probably deadly. The FEMA report — though its details are stunning — tells us largely what we already knew: that the federal response to Maria was sorely lacking.
And it will take more than a few rolls of blithely lobbed paper towels to clean up the results.