BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. As this program is broadcast, the Carolinas are being inundated by a violent storm. In the days leading up to Florence’s landfall, the reporting was diligent and ominous, focusing on the storm's trajectory, power and deadly potential.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, all under a state of emergency.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: In hurricanes, more than 75% of the people die from the storm surge and the water.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The surge could act, Michael, like a plug as the – all of the waterways try to drain into the ocean.
BOB GARFIELD: The urgent, secondary, ramifications of the killer storm were also covered, ranging from the risks of collateral catastrophe –
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Crews shut down the Duke Energy Brunswick Nuclear Plant in Southport, North Carolina yesterday. It sits roughly four miles inland and was expected to be blasted.
BOB GARFIELD: -- to ugly realities pertaining to electoral politics and the Trump administration.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security requested to transfer about $10 million out of the budget for FEMA this year and into the coffers of ICE.
BOB GARFIELD: Storm coverage, like much of history, exists in three dimensions of time, the gathering past, the urgent present, the chaotic aftermath. No wonder then that storms are the go-to journalistic metaphor for all sorts of havoc, natural and manmade. For instance, we are 10 years from the collapse of the Wall Street titan Lehman Brothers, 10 years since the levees shielding global financial markets from their own recklessness were breeched, triggering economic and political tempests even now. And we are just days away from the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria, the storm that ravaged Puerto Rico and laid bare corruption, political hypocrisy and colonial subjugation. This is an hour devoted to all three dimensions of disaster. And we’ll begin in Puerto Rico.
In a press briefing Tuesday about the anticipated damage from Hurricane Florence, President Donald Trump said that the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last September was, quote, “an unsung success.” This is Anderson Cooper.
ANDERSON COOPER: I, I’m not even sure where to begin with this. We should point out, the government of Puerto Rico paid a lot of money for GW University to spend months studying the death tolls. They came up with this 3,000 number. Also, a Harvard University study in conjunction with other universities in Puerto Rico did a study that also showed similar numbers. CNN’s own reporting interviewing funeral directors also showed thousands of, of deaths.
BOB GARFIELD: Trump doubled down, tweeting on Thursday that the high death toll is a lie and a smear created by Democrats to discredit him. What to do but hold your head in despair?
Well, on Twitter we saw that the political anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla was finding possibility in the president’s inhumanity, and we were intrigued. After all, as she’s written for the Washington Post, the tempest swirling out of Trump’s tweet brings attention back to the Island and the opportunity to reiterate the truth. She’s now in San Juan working on a book about Puerto Rico before and after the storm called American Disaster. In her Twitter post, she quoted Toni Morrison who observed that the function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work, it keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being.
YARIMAR BONILLA: A lot of us suddenly had to put down what we were doing and respond to Trump. And so, part of what I was saying was let’s not get distracted in asserting the simple facts of the matter and, in fact, maybe there's a way in which we can use this spotlight that’s cast on Puerto Rico every time Trump tweets about it to talk about the real problems we face, which are not just Trump’s tweets.
What people are talking about here is where we are now in this recovery. I mean, a year out, there are still streetlights that are hanging, people living under blue tarps. There was real concern about how folks who still don't have a roof, basic shelter, would face this new storm. And then there's also the long-standing problems of the debt crisis, of austerity, of the dismantling of the education system, the dismantling of the university, the shrinking of the government, the migration crisis. There are so many problems that really surpass Trump and Trump’s failures, which he seems intent on reminding us of, but there are a whole host of problems that need to be dealt with in Puerto Rico and that are being dealt with by Puerto Ricans because we know that we can’t really count on Trump or even the federal government.
BOB GARFIELD: Just when you think there’s no more of the original disaster response failures to disclose, there comes news of something discovered just this week.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: What could be millions of bottles of water that were sent to the Island to help the survivors of Hurricane Maria has been sitting on a runway in Ceiba, Puerto Rico since last year. FEMA says they gave the bottles of water to the government of Puerto Rico; the question is what happened then?
YARIMAR BONILLA: There are people here who died from leptospirosis, from having drank contaminated water. And so, to think that there was all this water going to waste in this abandoned airstrip was just a little bit too much to bear. But it’s also just, you know, the most recent episode in a series of things that have become slowly disclosed, which began with the death count. From the beginning, local journalists in Puerto Rico were pointing to the fact that the government was hiding the number of deaths, and they were really the ones that led the charge against that. And then slowly it has been revealed how a lot of the financial donations that were made to the Office of the First Lady or to other charities or nonprofits, the aid has not materialized. And there are also the FEMA trailers that were found in private farms with aid that was not distributed. And there were also these trailers at the coroner’s office that were found to be leaking and, and these bodies that had not been autopsied. And so, every week it feels like new news surfaces and it’s hard to know which one is going to really take hold in the public imagination and the public discourse, but the, the million water bottles really caused a lot of stir.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me get beyond the failings of FEMA and infrastructure and corruption on the Island and get to the, the underlying problem, which is, I guess you could call it just ongoing colonialism. But I simply must ask you about something that Paul Ryan said in response to press questions on Thursday morning about Trump's tweet.
PAUL RYAN: There is no reason to dispute these numbers and it's a function of this was a devastating storm that hit an isolated island, and that's really no one's fault. That is just what happened.
YARIMAR BONILLA: This is not just something that happened. It’s something that is produced structurally by a weakened state in Puerto Rico, by imperial disdain, by a lack of intervention because the folks who died here, they didn't die in mudslides, they didn't die because they were blown away by the hurricane winds. It was the way the storm was handled.
BOB GARFIELD: This has been well studied by FEMA itself, by the Government Accountability Office. Harvard and George Washington Universities looked into it and, and found a laundry list of issues.
YARIMAR BONILLA: What they had found was that the majority of people died due to lack of access to healthcare, and this ranged from lack of access to their medication, to inability to plug in respirators, inability to reach hospitals. So that was the major cause. And then you also had bacterial diseases, the spike of suicide. What is happening in a society to make people feel like there is no alternative, there is no option? And so, all of this was very much not a product of simple Mother Nature but of things that could have been dealt with, that could have been avoided.
BOB GARFIELD: We began this by talking about how there may be a silver lining in the president's tweets, in that it calls attention to the Island, but by the time this story gets on the air, Hurricane Florence will have hit the Carolinas, inundating the mainland and also the news. Is it likely that Puerto Rico will, once again, be sort of swamped in the process and, once again, out of the thoughts of the American public?
YARIMAR BONILLA: Here in Puerto Rico right now we've been preparing for the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which is next week, bracing ourselves for the possibility of being in the wake of, of a new hurricane. So our attention is very much on the hurricane season and on Maria and on trying to move away from this. But we know that in the United States attention shifts quickly. Even when the studies of the death count were released, there was very little attention in the mainstream media, so we are already prepared to be ignored during Maria’s anniversary, especially as a hurricane hits the East Coast of the United States.
The attention that Trump has brought in some ways has been positive because it had led a lot of reporters to come to Puerto Rico, to research exactly what the recovery has looked like, to point to the failures of FEMA, the failures of Trump and also the failures of the local government and the corruption that has been revealed.
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Puerto Rico’s recovery should be a news item for at least a decade. It’s going to take that long to really get a sense of what the impact of Hurricane Maria long term will be.
BOB GARFIELD: Yarimar, once again, thank you so much for joining us.
YARIMAR BONILLA: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Yarimar Bonilla is a political anthropologist and Carnegie Fellow, currently working on a new book about Puerto Rico before and after the storm, titled American Disaster.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the collapse that flooded the world with debt and doubt.