puerto rico hurricane irma
The outer band of Hurricane Irma approaches San Juan, Puerto Rico on Sept. 6, 2017. Credit: Department of Defense

The president really should be concentrating almost all his attention on foreign policy and domestic relief efforts. Puerto Rico needs the modern equivalent of the Berlin airlift, but this time on the scale not of a city but of a state or country.

Planning for something of this scale needs to start immediately because without it, the death toll in Puerto Rico will become unimaginable. The number of people who are out of money, food, water, fuel and critical medical supplies will grow every day. Many areas of the country are virtually inaccessible due to damaged infrastructure, obstructed roads, and lack of communications. There are people already suffering from lack of food and water, and starvation isn’t far off.

We need new airstrips and all hands on deck to restore power. We need thousands and thousands of cargo flights, probably on an ongoing basis for the next year. We need vast amounts of equipment and manpower to operate it in order to clear debris, clear roads, and get things in a condition to where people can begin to rebuild. We need mobile medical teams that can move in and out of remote areas and evacuate those who will die without supervision.

Here’s just one example of what’s going on in Puerto Rico right now, and you can imagine how quickly it will get worse:

The 63-year-old mother, Maria Dolores Hernandez, had cotton stuffed in her ears to keep flies out, since her now screenless windows were letting all sorts of bugs in. The gray-haired diabetic woman spoke with her daughter about her worries: that she would run out of prescription drugs, that they were almost out of generator fuel to keep her insulin refrigerated and to run the fans at night. With all the heat, she feared that her ulcer would become infected…

…Aldea, who works as a secretary in the mayor’s office, is living with and taking care of her mother in the tiny room downstairs. Darangellie spends most of the days with a relative in town, but at night she sleeps with her mother. The child has asthma and needs to use a daily nebulizer treatment — requiring her mother to turn on their generator at night. They have enough diesel to power the generator for one more day.

She has a half-tank of gas left and can’t set aside the entire day that would be necessary to wait in line for more because she has to care for her daughter and mother. It doesn’t help that driving to town for her job — which usually takes seven minutes — now takes more than a half-hour because of blocked or inaccessible roads.

But Aldea remained calm. More than anything, she is thankful to be alive: “If I don’t stay strong, how can I take care of the two people who depend on me?”

Aldea is brave and determined, but she can’t treat her mother’s ulcer or keep her insulin refrigerated, and she can’t give her daughter Darangellie her nebulizer treatment if her generator is out of fuel. She’s lucky because she has a job, but she won’t be able to get to it for long. How many people have jobs that don’t exist when there is no power? How many businesses can stay afloat when they have no power, can’t get deliveries or supplies, and have a banking system that is on its knees.

Consider this:

Just two gas stations were functioning in the town, and lines stretched for more than half a mile. Some people walked and rode bicycles for miles with empty gas canisters in hand.

One of the town’s two supermarkets was open Sunday, and employees would let in only 10 people at a time to avoid chaos. Residents, who stood in line for hours, could purchase only rationed food. There is no functioning bank or cash machine in the entire municipality.

The president should not be talking about sports. He should be talking about Aldea, Darangellie and Maria, and the millions like them suffering in Puerto Rico.

For many residents, the challenge of accessing the essentials of modern life — gasoline, cash, food, water — began to sink in. And government officials had no answers for them. Estimates for the return of electricity and basic services will be measured not in days but in weeks and months. For those most vulnerable, far too long.

Many have been openly wondering when help will arrive, whether from local officials or from the federal government. The first thing some villagers ask when they see outsiders: “Are you FEMA?”

Trump won’t be doing his job until the outsiders those villagers see are actually there with the supplies they need to help. If he explains the situation to the American people and asks for our help and support, we will give it.

If he doesn’t mobilize the nation for this effort, the result will be catastrophic.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com