As Hurricane Florence prepares to make landfall somewhere in the Carolinas, many who live along the Eastern Seaboard are questioning whether federal authorities are prepared to help them weather the disaster.
And President Trump doesn’t seem to be helping – neither do reports out this week about alleged corrupt conduct on the part of FEMA’s leader; new reports that possibly millions of bottles of drinking water were allowed to fester on a Puerto Rican airport runway instead of being properly delivered to people who needed them; and sudden revelations – again, out just this week – that FEMA has paid only 3 percent of 2,431 claims from Puerto Ricans seeking help with funeral expenses.
And this is completely putting aside claims, also reported just this week, that nearly $10 million originally earmarked for FEMA has been diverted to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to help pay for detention facilities and deportation operations.
But let us begin at the beginning.
On Tuesday of this week, when it had gradually become clear that Florence was going to make landfall instead of taking a turn to the north and missing the U.S. mainland (as most of her predecessors in that part of the Atlantic had done), Trump commented on the storm’s enormity. He called Florence a “tremendously big and tremendously wet” hurricane.
Unlike much of the time, Trump’s utterances actually had a foundation in fact: Florence is a “tremendously big” hurricane, and, given that parts of the Carolinas could receive as much as 20 to 30 inches of rain, there’s no denying that the storm is “tremendously wet.”
But then Trump couldn’t resist being Trump.
Later that same day, he bragged about his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, which struck the U.S. island of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with devastating impact – it is now estimated that nearly 3,000 people died as a direct or indirect result of the storm.
Trump called the response “an incredible, unsung success.”
“I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful. Puerto Rico was actually our toughest one of all because it is an island. I actually think it is one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about.”
Reaction to Trump’s comments was not kind.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) posted this on Facebook:
“I mean this seriously, not as a political dig.
“If you’re in Florence’s path and considering riding it out, your President just said that a hurricane response where 3,000 people die is his measure of success.
“Get out of there.”
And San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz called Trump’s remarks “despicable.”
“Success? Federal response according to Trump in Puerto Rico a success? If he thinks the death of 3,000 people [is] a success God help us all,” she tweeted. “Pres Trump thinks losing 3,000 lives is a success. Can you imagine what he thinks failure looks like?”
(Thursday morning, Trump was doubling down on his remarks. He said the higher death estimate – nearly 3,000, compared with the 64 deaths originally reported by the Puerto Rican government – was generated by Democrats to “make me look as bad as possible.”)
Unfortunately — both for Puerto Ricans and potentially for residents of the Carolinas – Trump’s FEMA doesn’t need much help these days when it comes to looking bad. Just this week, these stories have been reported:
Thursday morning, Politico reported that FEMA Administrator Brock Long is the target of an ongoing Department of Homeland Security inspector general investigation into whether he misused government vehicles during his commutes to North Carolina from Washington. Per Politico:
The actions by Long, the U.S. government’s lead disaster official as the country braces for Hurricane Florence, have been called into question by the inspector general over whether taxpayers have inappropriately footed the bill for his travel, an issue that has tripped up a number of current and former top Trump Administration officials.
Long’s travel habits triggered a clash between him and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, in recent weeks, clouding their relationship just as senior aides close to President Donald Trump prepared for hurricane season – a task that’s attracted extra scrutiny in the wake of the disaster that befell Puerto Rico in the aftermath of last year’s Hurricane Maria.
At a meeting in late August, Nielsen confronted Long about his travel, though people familiar with the meeting gave conflicting accounts about whether she took the step of asking him to step down over the issue.
And on Tuesday, CBS News reported that the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria is under fresh scrutiny over photos showing what appear to be millions of water bottles meant for victims still sitting on a runway in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, almost a year after the storm. Per CBS News:
The Puerto Rican government has placed much of the blame for mismanagement of resources on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A senior FEMA official told CBS News’ David Begnaud that “if [FEMA] put that water on that runway there will be hell to pay … If we did that, we’re going to fess up to it.”
The images of huge stacks of bottled water began circulating on social media Tuesday, the same day President Trump called the government’s response to Maria an “unsung success” during a meeting on hurricane preparedness in the Oval Office. Nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico because of the storm.
The photos were taken by Abdiel Santana, who works with the United Forces of Rapid Action agency of the Puerto Rican Police. Santana said he snapped the photos because he was angry to still see them sitting there, nearly a year after he first spotted them. Santana told CBS News he took pictures of the bottles last fall, but has not provided those photos yet.
Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, Buzzfeed reported that FEMA has approved just 3 percent of applications for funeral assistance from more than 2,000 Puerto Rican families who lost loved ones after Hurricane Maria, according to a letter the agency head wrote to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Per Buzzfeed:
In response to an earlier letter from Warren, Brock Long, director of FEMA, wrote on Aug. 14 that as of July 30, his agency had received 2,431 requests for funeral assistance from Puerto Ricans related to the hurricane — they approved just 75 of them, meaning 97% have either been rejected or have not received a decision almost a year after Maria hit the island.
FEMA’s funeral assistance is intended to help people who have lost loved ones in disaster situations pay for funeral costs, including caskets, mortuary services, burial plots, and cremations.
Although Long did not give a specific reason in his letter for the rejections, he pointed to FEMA’s requirements for funeral assistance. To qualify, Puerto Ricans had to provide a death certificate or letter from a government official “that clearly indicates the death was attributed to the emergency or disaster, either directly or indirectly,” Long wrote in the letter obtained by BuzzFeed News, which he wrote on behalf of FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services.
But getting that information was impossible for many families because, as the Puerto Rican government recently admitted, officials were not counting hurricane-related deaths correctly.
Warren was not pleased. This is what she said in a statement to Buzzfeed:
“It should be a gut punch to all of us that thousands of our fellow U.S. citizens died due to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. For months, I’ve pushed the Trump Administration about its role in, and acceptance of, an inaccurate fatality count. We need to know how the Administration has updated its disaster planning in response to the new death toll and ensure that grieving Puerto Rican families receive long-awaited federal funeral assistance.”
Finally, what about the news reports, which surfaced Tuesday evening and Wednesday, that $9.8 million has been diverted from FEMA to ICE? Those reports have ignited a new round of partisan sniping on Capitol Hill. Republicans and Department of Homeland Security officials say the $9.8 million does not come out of funds earmarked for disaster relief.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) issued a statement accusing Democrats, particularly Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who first brought up the allegations on the Rachel Maddow Show, of politicizing the current impending disaster:
“FEMA officials have already stated that no money was transferred from disaster accounts, despite the misleading and distractive narrative being pushed. Any elected official who attempts to politicize this storm to further their own partisan agenda and personal political ambitions should be ashamed of themselves.”
But Democrats say, not so fast. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who met with FEMA officials on Wednesday, said he did not get a chance to ask them about the $10 million in reprogrammed funds, but said “the money should not be diverted.”
“Look, we have to come in and ask for more monies for FEMA at year end because the emergencies always cause them to need more resources. We shouldn’t be diverting into other accounts. We’ll get an answer to that question,” he said.
Meanwhile, millions of Carolinians in Hurricane Florence’s path can only wait and hope that when it comes to disaster response in the coming days, weeks, and yes, months, that FEMA and other government agencies provide the help they expect and deserve.